Civil Liberties

Bad Host

Cutting off Iranian dissidents.


During the Super Bowl, Fox aired a commercial for the Arizona-based Web hosting company that showed a large-breasted young woman experiencing a wardrobe malfunction before a titillated Congress. The ad outraged the National Football League, which convinced Fox to cancel a second planned airing. GoDaddy CEO Bob Parsons cried censorship.

Meanwhile, his company was helping to prevent Iranian dissidents from even reading about the outside world. According to GoDaddy's Web site, the company is actively "blocking people" in Iran, Cuba, Iraq, Libya, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria "from accessing its site" because of "U.S. government policies."

It's not alone. In January the Dallas-based hosting company The Planet abruptly canceled its contracts with the Iranian Students News Agency, which is government-run but has nevertheless provided some sympathetic coverage of the country's reform movement, and with at least two other individual Iranian weblogs. When a blogger named Omid asked for specific reasons why, the company (which has refused all interview requests) responded, "Unfortunately, this is all the information I can give you."

So does Washington forbid American companies from hosting Iranian sites? Unless the companies obtain a government license, yes.

The Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control issued a June 2003 ruling that hosting Iranian Web sites violates the Trading With the Enemy Act unless companies prove that "the main purpose is to benefit the people of Iran through increased access to information." As with the office's other speech-restricting decisions, some American companies choose to avoid the hassle altogether and end up punishing the very dissidents the regulators claim to defend.

To explain why Iranians and even nonembargoed Libyans are blocked from accessing GoDaddy's sites, the company's site directs readers to the State Department's "Overview of State-Sponsored Terrorism"–from April 2001. In it, the State Department warns that "terrorists have seized upon the worldwide practice of using information technology…in daily life."

But it's the daily lives of thousands of Iranian bloggers, dozens of whom have been jailed by the mullahs for writing freely, that may suffer.?