According to this report, Network Solutions in April seized over 700 domain names relating to Syria. Among these were sites used by the Syrian Electronic Army, a pro-Assad hacker group that has achieved some notoriety for taking over the AP’s Twitter account and pushing out a false tweet about alleged explosions at the White House. They also hacked The Onion’s Twitter account which led to this memorable story and headline on the satire site: “Syrian Electronic Army Has A Little Fun Before Inevitable Upcoming Death At Hands of Rebels.” All of the domains now show the owner as “OFAC Holding.” A complete list can be found here.
Frequent readers of this blog will no doubt be aware that OFAC has issued a series of general licenses permitting provision in sanctioned countries of services incident to personal communications over the Internet. However, General License No. 5 for Syria explicitly excludes from the General License “domain name registration services.”
Of course, shutting down the sites now does not negate the violation that occurred in providing these web hosting services to Syria in the first place. And a large part of the problem here is that domain services are normally provided without any human involvement. A registrant fills out a web form, hands over a credit card number to pay for the annual fee, and a computer program takes care of the rest. Add to that, as the famous New Yorker cartoon caption suggests, “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” It is simply not clear how Network Solutions could screen out every registration from an embargoed country. Instead, it seems the best an Internet registrar can do is shut down the domain names once it learns of the problem.
The big questions, then, are this: does Network Solutions have a voluntary disclosure pending at OFAC on this and what will OFAC’s response be?