Wednesday, August 3, 2016

IBM's SoftLayer cloud infrastructure service blocks Cuba -- why now?

Cachivache Media recently reported that the Bitly URL-trimming service had stopped working in Cuba. Cubans had been using the service for several years, so this resulted in many broken links.

Cachivache did not know what had happened, but published a traceroute that timed out at an Akamai router. I contacted Akamai, and they said they could not say anything -- they would only talk with their customers -- Bitly in this case.

This traceroute from Cuba to Bitly times out in the Akamai network.

So I contacted Bitly and had an email exchange with one of their support people. (The press and operations departments failed to answer my emails and I could not find a phone number to call). This is a transcript of my email conversation with their support representative:

Larry: My colleagues in Cuba are unable to reach their account. They say it failed some time ago, worked yesterday and is now broken again. I attach a traceroute.

Support: Unfortunately, Bitly links do not function correctly in Cuba. This is not an issue on our end – I believe that Cuba and Iran are both unable to access Bitly links, due to government regulations.

I wish I had more info! Let me know if you need help with anything else.

Larry: Cubans have been using Bitly for years and they are no longer on the list of state sponsors of terrorism -- it just recently became unreachable. It was back up for a day earlier in the week then went down again. There is some sort of intermittent failure.

Could you follow up with Akamai on this? Or, if it is a change in your company policy, could someone confirm that?

Support: Thanks for getting back to me. Unfortunately there is not much I can do here, we’ve had reported problems with our links in Cuba, and are working diligently to rectify the issue.

Larry: I am confused -- are you now saying that it is a technical issue rather than policy? If so, by when do you expect to rectify it? The traceroute times out at an Akamai router -- have you filed a help ticket with them?

Support: I wouldn’t necessarily say this is an issue on our end. We know that our links don’t always work in Cuba – we’re not in touch with the Cuban government about this however.

I really wish I had a better answer for you, but I don’t unfortunately! I hope you still find value in our free tool.

Larry: Are you doing it in compliance with a request of the US government? Is Akamai?

Support: As I mentioned, we’re aware of this issue, our engineers are aware and are working to solve the problem.

I can’t provide any more additional info at this time, I apologize for the inconvenience.

Well, that was inconsistent, but I guess a tech support person does not have authority to answer such questions.

Next, I heard from a friend in Cuba who told me it was not only Bitly -- other sites that used Bitly to trim their URLs were also blocked. Confused, I asked a colleague, Doug Madory, who monitors the Internet at Dyn Research, what he thought was going on. It turned out Doug had also been looking into this case. He told me the culprit was Softlayer, Bitly's hosting service, and that he would be providing more technical detail soon.

I checked with SoftLayer and the answer was on their Web site -- they block traffic from countries that are subject to U.S. trade and economic sanctions -- Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. The rationalle for the SoftLayer policy is found in a Commerce Department guidance document.

So, we know what happened, but the real question is "Why now?"

Did Bitly know Cuba and the other sanctioned nations would be cut off when they moved to SoftLayer? (It looks like Bitly moved rather recently).

It turns out that SoftLayer began blocking Iran (and presumably the other countries) last February. Was that triggered by SoftLayer (or parent company IBM) lawyers exercising caution or were they pressured to change by government officials? Are they applying for an exception to the sanction?

Regardless, cutting Cuba off seems inconsistent with the policy of the current US administration. The Commerce Department page on the sanctions refers to "the President’s policy to chart a new course in bilateral relations with Cuba and to further engage and empower the Cuban people, announced on December 17, 2014."

This change inconvenienced a lot of Cubans -- does the US Government really want to do that at that time? Sanctions like this are a blunt instrument -- harming "good guys" like Cuba's new, Internet media as well as "bad guys."

This incident also reminds us of the fragility of Internet applications with dependencies -- the company or service your application depends upon can change its price or terms of use or just turn it off as in this case.

I'll see if I can get a better answer to the question why now? and will let you know what Doug's analysis reveals, but for now, we at least know what happened.

Update 8/9/2016

I've asked IBM and SoftLayer why they made the decision to start blocking Cuba in February. IBM said they had no comment and SoftLayer did not return my phone call or email. I asked Amazon Web Services -- another cloud hosting company -- whether they blocked Cuban traffic and did not receive an answer to my email or phone message. (At least IBM had the courtesy of telling me "no comment").

Hitting that blank wall, I did a Google search and learned that:
  • IBM acquired SoftLayer in 2013.
  • In September 2015, the Treasury and Commerce Departments announced amendments to the Cuba sanctions regulations. "These regulatory changes build on the revisions implemented earlier this year and will further ease sanctions related to travel, telecommunications and internet-based services, business operations in Cuba, and remittances." The announcement states the desire to loosen sanctions on telecommunications & Internet-based services in order to enhance "the free flow of information to, from, and within Cuba, and better providing efficient and adequate telecommunications services between the United States and Cuba."
  • In January 2016, Treasury and Commerce announced further amendments to the Cuba sanctions regulations. Treasury Secretary Lew said "We have been working to enable the free flow of information between Cubans and Americans" and the announcement goes on to say that Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security "will generally approve license applications for exports and reexports of telecommunications items that would improve communications to, from, and among the Cuban people."
  • Shortly before President Obama's trip to Cuba in March 2016, a related announcement stated that "The Cuban assets control regulations currently authorize the importation of Cuban-origin mobile applications. The Office of Foreign Assets Control will expand this authorization to allow the importation of Cuban-origin software."

The administration has increasingly relaxed Cuban sanctions on telecommunication and Internet services. So, I am still wondering why, in February 2016, SoftLayer decided to start blocking Cuban traffic.

Update 8/11/2016

Bitly CEO Mark Josephson has posted an article addressing the blocking of their site. He reiterates the fact that the decision to block Cuba was not their's and speaks in favor of an open Internet -- an "Internet you can see across," which has been a Bitly tagline since the company was founded.

He concludes that "We understand the rationale behind the rules in place from our partner and are working with them to change this. I’m confident that we’ll be able to address this with our partner, and if we can’t, we’ll try to find another way."

Update 8/18/2016

Amazon Web Services and Rackspace allow Cuban traffic and Google Cloud Platform and IBM/SoftLayer block it. (All of them seem to be in similar businesses).

Iroko Alejo says Envato, Themeforest, Attlassian and are also blocked.

Paypal allows remittances to Cuba, but they stopped a message accompanying a payment because it contained the word "Cuba." (I wonder what other words they filter for).

Reading the US policy statements on Cuban sanctions (above), it seems like the administration favors Internet communication with Cuba and would be unlikely to prosecute any of these companies for sanctions violations.

I wonder why some companies are more cautious than others.

Update 8/27/2016

PayPal froze the account of Nathaniel Parish after he bought a Cuban cigar while he was in Mexico. In the article he summarizes the US administration policies on purchases of Cuban goods, which, like our communication policy, favors exchange.

Note that his purchase of Cuban cigars was legal.

Update 8/29/2016

I have no way of estimating the number of Web sites blocked in Cuba, but we can get some idea of the number by looking at the numbers of Web sites hosted by known blockers Google and SoftLayer. tracks the number of sites served by hosting companies. Here are their current statistics for SoftLayer and Google:

As you see, Google hosts more than twice as many sites as SoftLayer, but SoftLayer hosts more of the top 10,000 sites than Google. (Follow the links above to interactive graphs of the history of these hosting platforms).

An interesting side note -- I was surprised at the amount of information Builtwith gathers on the hosted sites. For a fee, you can order a list of the sites hosted by a particular service along with the following data on each of their clients:
Domain name, Location on Site, Company, Vertical industry, Alexa and Quantcast statistics, phone numbers and email addresses, accounts on Twitter and nine other services, names, titles and email addresses of several employees and more.
For example, I could now give you information about 14 people who work for I won't).

Privacy is indeed dead.

Update 10/14/2016

Cuban diplomat Josefina Vidal tweeted examples of over a dozen broken links to Softlayer and Google sites last month, followed by this rhetorical question:

I've spoken with people in the State Department and the Obama administration did not order those sites to be blocked and does not favor doing so. IBM and Google are independent companies acting on their own.

I first wrote about this blocking more than a month before Vidal's tweets -- I hope this post did not lead to her statement.

Update 11/15/2016

I have heard from several sources that Bitly is working again in Cuba. I asked Bitly about it and they confirmed that the service is working again. They promised more news soon, but implied that their service is a special case and other Softlayer sites remain blocked.

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