IBM’s SoftLayer Cloud Infrastructure Service Blocks Cuba – Why Now?
Aug 08, 2016 12:55 PM PDT
PrintComment By Larry Press
Cachivache Media recently reported that the Bitly URL-trimming service
had stopped working in Cuba. Cubans had been using the service for
several years, so this resulted in many broken links.
Cachivache did not know what had happened, but published a traceroute
that timed out at an Akamai router. I contacted Akamai, and they said
they could not say anything — they would only talk with their customers
— Bitly in this case.
A traceroute snapshop showing the time out at an Akamai router. (Click
So I contacted Bitly and had an email exchange with one of their support
people. (The press and operations departments failed to answer my emails
and I could not find a phone number to call). This is a transcript of my
email conversation with their support representative:
Larry: My colleagues in Cuba are unable to reach their bit.ly account.
They say it failed some time ago, worked yesterday and is now broken
again. I attach a traceroute.
Support: Unfortunately, Bitly links do not function correctly in Cuba.
This is not an issue on our end — I believe that Cuba and Iran are both
unable to access Bitly links, due to government regulations.
I wish I had more info! Let me know if you need help with anything else.
Larry: Cubans have been using Bitly for years and they are no longer on
the list of state sponsors of terrorism — it just recently became
unreachable. It was back up for a day earlier in the week then went down
again. There is some sort of intermittent failure.
Could you follow up with Akamai on this? Or, if it is a change in your
company policy, could someone confirm that?
Support: Thanks for getting back to me. Unfortunately there is not much
I can do here, we’ve had reported problems with our links in Cuba, and
are working diligently to rectify the issue.
Larry: I am confused — are you now saying that it is a technical issue
rather than policy? If so, by when do you expect to rectify it? The
traceroute times out at an Akamai router — have you filed a help ticket
Support: I wouldn’t necessarily say this is an issue on our end. We know
that our links don’t always work in Cuba — we’re not in touch with the
Cuban government about this however.
I really wish I had a better answer for you, but I don’t unfortunately!
I hope you still find value in our free tool.
Larry: Are you doing it in compliance with a request of the US
government? Is Akamai?
Support: As I mentioned, we’re aware of this issue, our engineers are
aware and are working to solve the problem.
I can’t provide any more additional info at this time, I apologize for
Well, that was inconsistent, but I guess a tech support person does not
have authority to answer such questions.
Next, I heard from a friend in Cuba who told me it was not only Bitly —
other sites that used Bitly to trim their URLs were also blocked.
Confused, I asked a colleague, Doug Madory, who monitors the Internet at
Dyn Research, what he thought was going on. It turned out Doug had also
been looking into this case. He told me the culprit was Softlayer,
Bitly’s hosting service, and that he would be providing more technical
I checked with SoftLayer and the answer was on their Web site — they
block traffic from countries that are subject to U.S. trade and economic
sanctions — Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Sudan, and Syria. The rationalle
for the SoftLayer policy is found in a Commerce Department guidance
So, we know what happened, but the real question is “Why now?”
Did Bitly know Cuba and the other sanctioned nations would be cut off
when they moved to SoftLayer? (It looks like Bitly moved rather recently).
It turns out that SoftLayer began blocking Iran (and presumably the
other countries) last February. Was that triggered by SoftLayer (or
parent company IBM) lawyers exercising caution or were they pressured to
change by government officials? Are they applying for an exception to
Regardless, cutting Cuba off seems inconsistent with the policy of the
current US administration. The Commerce Department page on the sanctions
refers to “the President’s policy to chart a new course in bilateral
relations with Cuba and to further engage and empower the Cuban people,
announced on December 17, 2014.”
This change inconvenienced a lot of Cubans — does the US Government
really want to do that at that time? Sanctions like this are a blunt
instrument — harming “good guys” like Cuba’s new, Internet media as well
as “bad guys.”
This incident also reminds us of the fragility of Internet applications
with dependencies — the company or service your application depends upon
I’ll see if I can get a better answer to the question why now? and will
let you know what Doug’s analysis reveals, but for now, we at least know
By Larry Press, Professor of Information Systems at California State
University. More blog posts from Larry Press can also be read here.
Source: IBM’s SoftLayer Cloud Infrastructure Service Blocks Cuba – Why