GitHub Has Started Blocking Developers From Countries That Face US Trade Sanctions And Restricting Access To The Repository’s Tools

Microsoft-owned GitHub has apparently started to restrict developers from specific countries. The coders and software developers facing sudden suspension of their accounts belong to the countries that are part of the US Trade Sanctions list. The latest victim of the strict compliance by GitHub resides in the Crimea region of Ukraine. The actions have inspired many Internet users to voice their concerns about the curbing of free speech. However, the ongoing trade sanctions that GitHub is complying with, clearly mention several countries.

In a series of events that several Internet users are claiming to appear similar to Cold War tactics, US-based and Microsoft-owned GitHub has begun to take action against accounts of people who reside in countries that America doesn’t have favorable relations with. This sudden and rather stringent action based solely on the residency and citizenship of the user is certainly surprising and unexpected.

However, GitHub mentions and maintains that US sanctions apply to its online hosting service, GitHub.com. In other words, GitHub is legally permitted or required to suspend accounts or restrict access to its platforms which fall under the purview of the US Government. However, Internet users claim such draconian rules are rarely, if ever, applied strictly to the digital world as the Internet is supposed to be the last truly democratic place where users can operate without the shackles of borders, race, ethnicity, gender, and other restrictions that apply in the real world.

GitHub Suspends Account Of Crimean Resident And Restricts Access To Its Platform And Services:

Earlier this week, GitHub “restricted” the account of a developer based in the Crimea region of Ukraine. The user, identified as Anatoliy Kashkin, was using the service to host his website and gaming software. The popular online repository of open-source software and other digital tools then informed the 21-year-old Russian citizen who lives in Crimea, that it had “restricted” his GitHub account “due to US trade controls”. Simply put, GitHub mentioned the specific reason for which the user’s account was suspended. The user claims GitHub doesn’t allow him to create new private GitHub repositories or access them.

Kashkin used GitHub to host his website and an aggregator service called GameHub. The website, which was earlier reported to be unreachable, is interestingly now operational. The working website mentions the various projects Kashkin has developed over the years. In a specific column, he has also listed two of his ongoing projects, which he has titled ‘GameHub’ and ‘Boiler’. Incidentally, both the services are essentially GTK+ desktop apps for Linux. He even mentions that some of the apps are included within the Elementary OS AppCenter. The OS he mentions is a popular Linux distro that’s well-received for its simplicity. GameHub is essentially a launcher for Linux systems that combines games from Steam, GOG, and Humble Bundle in a single user interface.

The Crimean resident confirmed that GitHub advised him this week that it had restricted his account. He added that GitHub pointed to its page about US trade controls to justify the suspension. Incidentally, the ongoing US trade sanctions mention Crimea, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and Syria as countries facing US sanctions.

What Can Users Residing In Countries Facing US Trade Sanctions Do?

GitHub isn’t the only service provider. However, it is by far the most popular repository. It has millions of monthly visitors and thousands of active daily users. Such aspects attract new and seasoned developers and indirectly restrict them from migrating to other platforms that offer similar services. For example, Kashkin’s website can easily be moved to another hosting provider. However, his projects like GameHub have a dedicated audience on GitHub. They cannot simply migrate to another platform, lamented the user.

“GitHub has many useful features and it’s safe to assume that many people interested in GameHub already use GitHub. 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.”

Kashkin’s concerns are quite justified simply because GitHub has a large member base that is also exceptionally active. These dedicated users help each other, solve queries, and generally assist new developers. Such a talent pool that’s willing to extend a helping hand isn’t easily found anywhere else. Still, several Internet users have urged the suspended user to use other hosting services, such as GitLab or Atlassian, which runs the BitBucket Git service.

However, even if the Crimean resident does decide to pack up and leave, he may not have anywhere else to go. GitLab was formerly headquartered in the US. Meanwhile, Atlassian was founded in Australia but also listed on the US NASDAQ exchange in 2015. Simply put, both the competing services of GitHub will have to comply with the same trade sanctions. This means Kashkin may not even be able to open an account on these services unless he can convince the companies he is not a resident of the country facing trade sanctions.

Appealing against the suspension is futile, claims Kashkin. “It is just pointless. My account is flagged as restricted and, in order to unflag it, I have to provide 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.”

Interestingly, GitHub statement about the restrictions is quite clear. “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.” However, the platform does offer a solution to such people. It’s mentioned on the platform’s 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. The cloud-hosted service offering available at Github.com has not been designed to host data subject to the ITAR (US International Traffic in Arms Regulations) 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.”

The platform also claims to be in discussions with US regulators about how to rectify the situation but insists that users must take all due precautions to be on the right side of the law. “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 ITAR.”

GitHub’s Compliance With US Trade Sanctions Law Gains Momentum:

Kashkin isn’t the only developer from a US-sanctioned nation who’s recently faced troubles on GitHub, reported ZDNet. He noted that several of his acquaintances in the region have faced similar sanctions-related restrictions quite recently. Moreover, the platform has started suspending accounts from Iran as well. Hamed Saeedi, a developer based in Iran claims he was using his GitHub account since 2012. However, the platform restricted his access recently. Through a complaint posted on Medium, Saeedi claims, “GitHub blocked my account and they think I’m developing nuclear weapons.”

Currently, all suspended accounts have the same cautionary note that reads as follows: “Due to U.S. trade control law restrictions, your GitHub account has been restricted. For individual accounts, you may have limited access to free GitHub public repository services for personal communications only.” The only links accessible through the suspended accounts point towards the GitHub trade controls page and a link to the appeals page.


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