My colleague Ethan Zuckerman just put up a disturbing post about Kubatana, a prominent Zimbabwean NGO, which saw its site taken down because its hosting provider, Bluehost, got cold feet after it discovered the site contained content from (gasp!) Zimbabwe.
Kubatana, among other things, hosts websites for prominent activist organizations like Women of Zimbabwe Arise. For the past two years, Kubatana has hosted a joint blog for a wide range of Zimbabwean citizens that has, according to Ethan, "been one of the key sources of information and perspective for people around the world who follow Zimbabwe, and a critical outlet for Zimbabweans who have few other ways to communicate."
Earlier this week, Kubatana’s blog site, as well as a couple of sites hosted on behalf of activist organizations, went dark. Visitors to the blog received a message that the webhost, Bluehost, had disabled the account. When the folks who run Kubatana asked why their account had been suspended, they were informed that an “internal review” revealed that Kubatana was a Zimbabwean organization, and Bluehost’s regulations prohibit them from doing business with ten countries that are subject to US government trade sanctions. . . .
I find it very hard to believe that Bluehost spontaneously decided to review Kubatana’s account - I suspect that someone frustrated by content on Kubatanablogs contacted BlueHost, leading to an account review where Bluehost decided to terminate hosting based on their reading of a trade sanctions provision.
In his typically thorough way, Ethan analyzes why Bluehost is wrong as to the applicability of trade sanctions to Kubatana. Nevertheless, as a private hosting provider, they are free to terminate their customers' accounts for wrongheaded reasons -- as long as their terms of service permit them to do so.
As we've said several times in the past (here and here), if your content might be controversial, you should think about what sort of platform or service will protect your speech most strongly. If you are planning to start a blog, you should carefully consult each hosting provider's terms & conditions to see which host is the most protective of free speech. The section of our legal guide that provides advice on legal issues to consider when getting online should be helpful.
Here is Ethan's recommendation:
If you run a site like Kubatana, look for a hosting provider that understands your business and has your back. There are lists out there of “free speech” webhosts - I don’t know how valuable they are, and the one linked above makes the same “sanctioned nation = banned nation” error that Bluehost made. Instead, I’d suggest you look for a hosting company run by human beings, not by notebooks filled with rules and procedures.