Microsoft not only firm banning IM access to U.S. enemy nations

But it's unclear how effective the measures will be at preventing access

Besides Microsoft Corp., Google Inc. and possibly AOL LLC have also cut access to their instant messaging services to citizens of countries deemed hostile to the United States. But it's unclear how effective those measures will be at preventing access.

Microsoft confirmed late last week that it had stopped offering its Windows Live Messenger service to users in Cuba, Syria, Iran, Sudan and North Korea.

All five countries are subject to trade embargoes overseen by the United States Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), a division of the Department of the Treasury.

A Google spokesperson also confirmed that it bans the download of both Google Talk, its instant messaging app, and Google Earth, its satellite mapping software, to Sudan, due to "U.S. export controls and economic sanctions regulations."

An AOL spokesperson, meanwhile, said in a statement that the company "takes its responsibilities under the sanctions programs administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control seriously and has implemented policies and procedures designed to ensure compliance with all applicable laws and regulations. For various reasons, AOL does not disclose the details of its internal compliance program."

Yahoo! Inc. did not return a request for comment about the access issues.

The moves likely hurt not only local residents of those countries, but also overseas friends and relatives who rely on the IM and video chat provided by these services to stay in touch.

Windows Live Messenger appears to be the most popular instant messaging service worldwide, with 300 million users as of March 2008, according to Microsoft.

According to June 2008 data compiled by Canadian mobile instant messaging provider, EQO Communications Inc., Windows Live Messenger had the largest market share in 14 of the 21 largest countries worldwide, including the UK, France, Canada, Brazil, Japan, Mexico, and Turkey.

Messenger is the second-most popular IM service in China, Germany and Saudi Arabia, according to EQO. However, it is only third in the United States, behind AOL Instant Messenger and Yahoo!.

Microsoft declined to comment to the IDG News Service on whether it had been contacted by OFAC or had voluntarily implemented the ban. A lawyer who advises companies on OFAC compliance said that while offering communications services such as IM to sanctioned countries such as Iran or Cuba is not restricted by OFAC, offering software is. That's because software, even free apps downloadable from the Internet, are considered exportable goods, and thus can be banned by OFAC, according to the lawyer, who requested anonymity.

By that reasoning, Web-based e-mail such as gMail or Windows Live HotMail can't be banned by OFAC, he said. Nor would pure cloud-based services such as Salesforce.com or those hosted by Amazon.com's EC2 be affected by the ban.

However, Windows Live Messenger, which relies on a user download, can be, he said.

The rules are fairly strict. "You can't even send a pen or pencil to people in those countries," he said.

The lawyer said that OFAC has "been focusing efforts towards Internet and Internet-related activities in recent years." In 2003, online job search provider Monster deleted job postings and client resumes for residents in seven countries after a company review of OFAC compliance rules. In 2007, OFAC fined online travel agency Travelocity.com nearly $200,000 for booking trips from the U.S. to Cuba for five years.

The bans are unlikely to stop techie or resourceful citizens in banned countries from logging into these IM services, though.

Middle Eastern tech news site ITP.net reported earlier this week that Syrian residents were getting around the ban by simply changing their country/region in their Microsoft Web accounts.

Another simple potential workaround is to use one of many third-party instant messaging clients or Web sites that allow users to connect to multiple IM services, including Windows Live Messenger.

Still another, more technical, workaround is for residents of affected countries to hide their IP address by connecting through a proxy server first. Such services are already used by those interested in protecting their privacy online.

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