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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.

A traceroute snapshop showing the time out at an Akamai router. (Click to Enlarge)

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 bit.ly 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.

By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State University

He has been on the faculties of the University of Lund, Sweden and the University of Southern California, and worked for IBM and the System Development Corporation. Larry maintains a blog on Internet applications and implications at cis471.blogspot.com and follows Cuban Internet development at laredcubana.blogspot.com.

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