Merry Christmas & Happy New Year

Warning:  I found this video clip to be funny, but it may be a bit offensive.  So please view at your own discretion.  Cheers!

Embargoed Countries & Software Downloads

Recently, there has been lots of news coverage on the Russian warships visiting Cuba.  The event has renewed memories of the Cuba Missile Crisis and the Cold War, which led the U.S. to impose a permanent economic sanction and trade embargo on Cuba.  While the original embargo was oriented towards import and export of certain goods between US and Cuba, over time the scope of the ban has been extended to cover most products and services including technology products such a computer software.  Similarly, the US government has mandated embargo treatments for several other countries as well.

If you work in the software space and you deliver or receive your software electronically, you may have unknowingly been subjected to these embargoed country checks.  U.S. based companies and their international subsidiaries are required by U.S. laws and regulations to take appropriate measures to comply, by restricting software delivery to non-embargoed end users.  Depending on your business model, targeted markets, business volume and risk tolerance, the compliance mechanism can span the spectrum from manual verification for low volume offline channels, to fully integrated solutions for high volume electronic software delivery.  If you are a Sun customer, partner or employee, please be aware of Sun’s policy on this matter.  By the way, this is my personal Blog and it does not necessarily reflect Sun’s official views.

Unfortunately, the embargo country check applies to even “free” software delivery, where no actual commerce is conducted.  Since most of these software downloads tends to be anonymous transactions,  the end user’s country is generally determined base on the end user’s IP Address.  Vendors such as Digital Envoy and Quova offers IP geo location services that fulfill such business needs with high degree of accuracy.  Most CDN providers (e.g. Akamai) also bundles IP geo location into their download services.  But because the Internet is constantly growing and evolving, false positive matches do occur, denying legitimate end users access.  For these rare events, it’s important that a closed loop process is in place to address the end users’ needs in a timely manner and to minimize the business impact.

While I understand the government’s intention in imposing trade embargoes and economic sanctions on selective countries, I question the actual value when it start to impede on the freedom and the inclusiveness of the Internet.  Try to visualize the Internet experience from the perspective of the children in these embargoed countries.  Educational and children Web sites like Disney.com and Nick.com depend heavily on software such as Java and Adobe Flash to provide an enriching and interactive experience. Yet, it seems quite silly that these children would be banned from downloading these commonly distributed software.  That would be like watching TV in black and white, while the rest of world enjoy the vividness of high definition (HD) TV.

I’m not a lawyer, nor do I fully understand these government policies in detail.  Perhaps I’m under-appreciative of the potential risks that companies subject themselves to, by not complying to the letter of these laws.  However, it just seems like the affected parties are not necessarily the intended parties.  After all, there are ways to circumvent or spoof the embargoed country check mechanisms.  My point is that while compliance is important, companies operating on the Web should strike an appropriate balance between compliance to government laws and regulations, and the voice of the under-represented user communities.

Do you have any thoughts on this subject?  Please feel free to share your thoughts in the comments field below.