In apparent observation of international trade sanctions against Syria, a U.S. firm that ranks as the world’s fourth-largest domain name registrar has seized hundreds of domains belonging to various Syrian entities, including a prominent Syrian hacker group and sites associated with the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Network Solutions LLC. and its parent firm — Jacksonville, Fla. based Web.com — have assumed control over more than 700 domains that were being used mostly for sites hosted in Damascus. The seizures all occurred within a three- to four-day period in mid-April.
The apparently coordinated action ended with each of the site’s registration records being changed to include Web.com’s Florida address, as well as the notation “OFAC Holding.”
OFAC is short for the Office of Foreign Assets Control, an office of the U.S. Treasury Department‘s Under Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence. OFAC administers and enforces U.S. economic trade sanctions against targeted foreign countries, including Syria.
Web.com declined to say whether it had coordinated the seizures or why it may have done so. “We do not comment publicly about specific accounts so we cannot provide details about the websites or domains mentioned in your inquiry,” the company said in an emailed statement. “However, you should know that we cooperate with law enforcement and regulators in order to prevent illegal activity online and take the necessary steps to be in compliance with applicable laws and regulations.”
Under a series of executive orders, U.S. businesses are prohibited from selling goods and services into Syria. While there are a number of exceptions — referred to as “general licenses” in OFAC-speak — domain hosting and registration services are not among them. Although the general licenses permit services that are designed for personal communications, the provision of Web hosting and domain name registration is specifically called out in Treasury regulations (PDF) as not authorized under general licenses.
A spokesman for the Treasury Department said OFAC had not contacted either Web.com or Network Solutions regarding these Web sites.
“OFAC has offered a general license authorizing the export of certain services for the exchange of personal communications over the Internet, such as instant messaging, chat and email, so that these sanctions don’t have the inadvertent effect of cutting the Syrian people off from the rest of the world,” said John Sullivan, spokesman for the Treasury Department’s Terrorism and Financial Intelligence division. “But the [general license] that allows for that does not authorize the exportation of Web hosting or registration services, so those could be subject to enforcement actions under our Syrian sanctions program.”
The domain seizures came to my attention after reading a report produced last month by HP‘s security and research team, which noted that individuals associated with a pro-Assad hacker group known as Syrian Electronic Army were complaining that NetworkSolutions had seized their domains, including syrian-es.com, syrian-es.net and syrian-es.org.
A reverse WHOIS report ordered from domaintools.com produced this list (PDF) of some 708 Syrian domains recently shuttered and assigned an “OFAC” designation by Web.com. According to historic Web hosting records also maintained by domaintools.com, the vast majority of the 700+ domains were hosted at Internet addresses assigned to the Syrian Computer Society (SCS). Interestingly, prior to assuming the presidency, Syria’s Assad was president of the SCS, a group now widely believed to have been a precursor to the Syrian Electronic Army.