This is a bizarre story. Many people who visited Iran, Cuba, or other countries embargoed by the United States are reporting that they received an email Wednesday that Slack was deactivating their accounts.
Slack claims that this is part of an “update” that allows it to use geolocation to detect where its users are using the service. However, it seems that the company is being overzealous, literally banning individuals who dared to use a corporate Slack instance while visiting family in places such as Iran. And, it appears, Slack is doing so unnecessarily, as Russell Brandom at The Verge points out:
Since 2014, US sanctions have included a general license for personal communications tools, described in the license as “fee-based services incident to the exchange of personal communications over the Intemet, such as instant messaging, chat and email, social networking, sharing of photos and movies, web browsing, and blogging.” That clause is generally understood to include services like Slack.
An Oxford researcher interviewed by Brandom said that Slack’s decision was either “incompetent… or racist”:
“Detecting an Iranian IP address on a paid account (which is presumed to be for business) login as a violation of sanctions is a wrong interpretation of these regulations,” [Oxford researcher Mahsa] Alimardani says. “At best it’s over-regulation to prevent any sort of misunderstanding or possible future hassle with [the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control].”
As Brandom points out, the heavy hand of sanctions enforcement can lead companies like Google and (apparently) Slack to ban widely rather than be caught in even a narrow violation. Ironically, people who were banned by Slack have been complaining on Twitter, a service that hasn’t chosen to kick them off.
[Update: Slack has apologized.]