Web hosting providers from the U.S., Canada and other Western nations have been hosting official Syrian government websites, in violation of sanction orders from the U.S. and other governments, according to a Canadian Web research organization.
The Internet and telecommunications blackout in Syria started Thursday around noon local time, but many Syrian government websites were available to the public because they were hosted by Western providers, according to a story in the New York Times. Several of those hosting providers took down the Syrian websites when reporters contacted them.
U.S. President Barack Obama, in an April executive order, has prohibited U.S. providers from hosting Syrian government websites without U.S. government approval.
As of early October, the official websites of four Syrian ministries, the state-run Sana News Agency and the Hama city government were hosted by U.S. providers, with other Syrian websites hosted in Canada, Germany and the U.K., according to an investigation by Citizen Lab, an Internet and human rights research organization at the University of Toronto. Western providers also hosted several websites of Hezbollah, classified by the U.S. and Canadian governments as a terrorist organization, the group said.
The issue raises "complex and highly nuanced" ethical and legal questions, said Ronald Deibert, director of Citizen Lab and the Canada Centre for Global Security Studies. "We are impartial, and make no claims as to what should or should not be done," he said by email. "We certainly do not see ourselves as an Internet police."
Citizen Lab called for an international debate on the role of hosting providers in offering services to repressive regimes.
"We continue to urge governments, civil society, and the private sector to carefully consider the role and responsibilities of web hosting companies -- including through development of proper guidance to this industry -- in international efforts to curb repressive regimes and entities associated with human rights abuses," the group said in a mid-November blog post.
International law is "short on guidance" to Web hosting providers, even though there may be significant human rights implications, the group said.
Some of the U.S. Web hosting providers identified by the Citizen Lab report did not immediately respond to a request for comments. But two, Colorado-based WeHostWebSites.com and New Jersey's PrivateSystems Networks, said they no longer host the websites in the report.
"The website listed in that article is not active on our network," a spokesman for PrivateSystems said by email. "We don't tolerate websites like that and act promptly if/when it occurs."
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of State said it has provided 2,000 communications kits to Syrian residents. The kits include cameras, phones and computers "designed to be independent from and able to circumvent the Syrian domestic network," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Thursday in a press briefing.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.