GitHub starts blocking developers in countries facing US trade sanctions

If you use GitHub's online services in a country facing US sanctions, you could be about to be kicked off all but the most basic offerings.
Written by Liam Tung, Contributing Writer

There's a debate over free speech taking place after Microsoft-owned GitHub "restricted" the account of a developer based in the Crimea region of Ukraine, who used the service to host his website and gaming software. 

GitHub this week told Anatoliy Kashkin, a 21-year-old Russian citizen who lives in Crimea, that it had "restricted" his GitHub account "due to US trade controls". 

Kashkin uses GitHub to host his website and GameHub, a launcher for Linux systems that combines games from Steam, GOG, and Humble Bundle in a single user interface.

Kashkin says GitHub advised him this week that it had restricted his account, pointing to its page about US trade controls, which lists Crimea, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria as countries facing US sanctions. 

As the developer reports, his website https://tkashkin.tk, which is hosted on GitHub, now returns a 404 error. He also can't create new private GitHub repositories or access them. 

While his website could easily be moved to another hosting provider, the block does pose a challenge for his work on GameHub, which has an established audience on GitHub.

"GitHub has many useful features and it's safe to assume that many of people interested in GameHub already use GitHub," wrote Kashkin.

"Discoverability is also a very important factor. I don't think many people will find GameHub on a self-hosted server somewhere and I don't think many of them will report issues there either," he added.

Fellow GitHub users have suggested he use other hosting services, such as GitLab or Atlassian, which runs the BitBucket Git service. 

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However, the former is headquartered in the US while the latter was founded in Australia but also listed on the US NASDAQ exchange in 2015, meaning both likely would need to comply with the same trade sanctions.  

GitHub does offer developers an appeal form to dispute restrictions but Kashkin told ZDNet that, at this point, there's nothing to gain by appealing the restriction. 

"It is just pointless. My account is flagged as restricted and, in order to unflag it, I have to provide a proof that I don't live in Crimea. I am in fact a Russian citizen with Crimean registration, I am physically in Crimea, and I am living in Crimea my entire life," he said. 

For developers in Kashkin's position, GitHub's wording of its restrictions isn't exactly helpful either.

"For individual users, who are not otherwise restricted by U.S. economic sanctions, GitHub currently offers limited restricted services to users in these countries and territories. This includes limited access to GitHub public repository services for personal communications only," it says.

As GitHub notes on its page about US trade controls, US sanctions apply to its online hosting service, GitHub.com, but its paid-for on-premise software -- aimed at enterprise users -- may be an option for users in those circumstances. It also claims to be in discussions with US regulators about how to rectify the situation.

"Users are responsible for ensuring that the content they develop and share on GitHub.com complies with the U.S. export control laws, including the EAR (Export Administration Regulations) and the US International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR)," GitHub says. 

"The cloud-hosted service offering available at Github.com has not been designed to host data subject to the ITAR and does not currently offer the ability to restrict repository access by country. If you are looking to collaborate on ITAR- or other export-controlled data, we recommend you consider GitHub Enterprise Server, GitHub's on-premises offering."

Kashkin isn't the only developer from a US-sanctioned nation who's recently faced troubles on GitHub. He told ZDNet that friends in Crimea have recently faced similar sanction-related restrictions. 

GitHub is also imposing restrictions in Iran. Hamed Saeedi, a developer based in Iran, posted a complaint on Medium claiming that "GitHub blocked my account and they think I'm developing nuclear weapons". 

The developer claims to have been using GitHub since 2012 and says he recently received an email from GitHub about trade controls, much like Kashkin. He also says that GitHub blocked all Iranian accounts.  

"Due to U.S. trade control law restrictions, your GitHub account has been restricted," it advised him. 

"For individual accounts, you may have limited access to free GitHub public repository services for personal communications only," it continued, guiding him to the GitHub trade controls page and a link to the appeals page. 

A GitHub spokesperson told ZDNet: "GitHub is subject to US trade control laws, and is committed to full compliance with applicable law. 

"At the same time, GitHub's vision is to be the global platform for developer collaboration, no matter where developers reside. As a result, we take seriously our responsibility to examine government mandates thoroughly to be certain that users and customers are not impacted beyond what is required by law. 

"This includes keeping public repositories services, including those for open source projects, available and accessible to support personal communications involving developers in sanctioned regions."

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