Update: Sanctions - World of Warcraft?

Sanctions - Is World of Warcraft Sanctions Compliance More Than a Joke?

by Elizabeth Gibson

[Editor's Note: GJIL is having a symposium on the issue of international sanctions - The Evolution of Economic Sanctions: Increasingly Financial, Multilateral, and Robust - on February 13, 2012. Therefore, each month The Summit will feature a post on sanctions. We encourage you to attend our symposium.]

     Over the last month, the media has been all over the story of Iranian gamers getting kicked off World of Warcraft in the name of sanctions compliance, and who can blame them with all the great punch lines about elves, trolls, and the U.S. government?

     However, in addition to the mystery of why exactly Blizzard Entertainment chose now to shut down Iranian accounts (sorry, no refunds), the situation has raised other interesting issues. Should interactive community games be considered a productive form of communication for sanctions purposes, and how much does all this matter in a world where savvy gamers quickly reconnected by rerouting their Internet through foreign networks?

     Internet-related sanctions are tricky business. Catching someone selling widgets to Iranians is pretty straightforward. Catching someone running a server in the U.S. that hosts a website that allows people to sell widgets to Iranians gets more complicated.

     Of course, the Treasury Department can and does enforce sanctions related to the Internet. However, not all widgets are alike, and the Treasury Department itself has said that hunting down less-than-vigilant online gaming companies is not exactly its primary objective. Blizzard’s decision to crack down on Iranian gamers happened without any direct prompting from the Treasury Department, according to the Treasury Department.

      It is fairly common for companies to self-monitor, usually in response to Treasury circulars reminding businesses to be careful about doing business in certain countries. Google, for example, blocks ads that might violate sanctions.

     Whatever its reasoning, Blizzard’s decision draws attention to an interesting distinction that has developed since changes to the U.S. Sanctions regime in 2010. It is now legal for Iranians to use U.S.-based programs for instant messaging, email, social networking, sharing photos and movies, web browsing, and blogging. However, the same content cannot be sent to a fellow gamer while simultaneously paying for the pleasure of defeating an army of orcs together. The difference is largely in the paid subscription.

     If a communications platform’s profits rely on ads, it has a sanctions exemption. If a company charges directly for its services, it is barred. Ultimately, it comes down to a choice of business models.

     In late 2009, the State Department decided that encouraging the free flow of information in Iran, Cuba, and Sudan was a national interest worthy of some exceptions to the U.S. sanctions regime. It carved out allowances for publically available mass market services for personal communications. Its paid subscriptions mean World of Warcraft cannot take advantage of the exemption, but should it be able to? How would this play out with a free online game?

     The 2010 change was partly in response to concern from human rights advocates and others following Iran’s 2009 elections. Amidst all the excitement over Iranian protestors’ “Twitter revolution,” a few people noticed that technically it had been illegal for Twitter to provide services to Iranians. In response, the State Department recognized that the Internet today is as important to the free exchange of ideas as books, art, and films, which already fell under an information materials exemption.

     There is a case to be made that interactive internet games that bring together an online community for the sake of entertainment and conversation serve a similar purpose. For those unfamiliar with World of Warcraft, it is often a platform for international friendships, political debates, and cultural exchanges in addition to role playing. The virtues of the game have been the subject of several serious scholarly papers.

      Whether online video games count as a form of communication would be an interesting debate, although unfortunately one unlikely to be made by gaming companies that may have more to lose than gain if they make a fuss about access to sanctioned countries. For now, Iranian gamers will just have to hold out hope that Blizzard applies for a license to do business in Iran, which any company can seek if it wants to do business in blacklisted countries.

Suggested Citation: Elizabeth Gibson, Sanctions - Is World of Warcraft Sanctions Compliance More Than a Joke?, GEO J. INT'L L. ONLINE: THE SUMMIT (Nov. 11, 2012, 3:36PM), http://gjilsummit.blogspot.com/2012/10/update-sanctions-world-of-warcraft.html.