Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 34
17 May 1999

Andrew Stroehlein W E B  W A R :
Is the US Planning to Destroy
the Yugoslav Internet?

Andrew Stroehlein

Unconfirmed reports from Belgrade claim that the US government is planning to cut Yugoslavia off the Internet. It may seem a bit far-fetched that Washington would bother with an assault on (dis)information; however, with NATO's recent attacks on Serb television, such a scenario is not inconceivable. But if it happens, this attack would be made by lawyers rather than bomber pilots.

Last week, BeoNET, an Internet service provider (ISP) in Belgrade, announced it had "reliable information" that the US Government had "ordered" a US firm to suspend its satellite feeds for Internet users in Yugoslavia.

BeoNET claimed this could occur as soon as 12 May and called it "a flagrant violation of commercial contracts with Yugoslav ISPs, as well as an attack on freedom of the Internet." They have also posted a protest site with all their accusations.

The US firm named in BeoNET's statements was Loral Orion, Inc, an international satellite communications company, headquartered in Rockville, Maryland. Loral Orion provides high-speed Internet connectivity directly to multinational businesses through small receiving antennas.

When contacted last week, a spokesman for Loral Orion told ENP the company was, indeed, currently providing US Internet backbone connectivity to two Internet service providers in Yugoslavia.

As to the US government "order," the Loral Orion spokesman said that what BeoNET had referred to was an executive order, signed by President Clinton on 30 April which established wide-ranging sanctions on goods and services from the US to Yugoslavia. That order became effective May 1 and was the result of an all-NATO agreement stemming from the Washington Summit.

The new US government sanctions had not targeted Loral Orion or Internet-related businesses in particular.

The Loral Orion spokesman admitted to ENP that the executive order's language was "quite broad," but he added, "It is Loral's opinion that the order does not apply to our provision of Internet data transport service to Yugoslavia."

He went on to say, "We have had some preliminary discussions with the US government to confirm this. The government has not given us a final decision, but the preliminary conversations we have had indicate that they agree with us and that service will not have to be suspended. We cannot predict when a final decision will be made, but until then, service will continue."

Loral Orion pointed out that the company had to comply with US laws, "including this executive order," but the spokesman said his firm was "cautiously optimistic" that the new sanctions would not hit Loral Orion's service.

BeoNET's claim that Loral Orion had been "ordered" was, therefore, a bit misleading. Unlike the bombs that destroyed the Serb TV station, Clinton's executive order is not an attack directed specifically at information providers, but rather a blanket embargo on almost all goods and services. What's more, Loral Orion provides support to only two ISPs in Yugoslavia, so even if the US firm were forced to comply with the new sanctions, Yugoslavia would not be cut off from the Internet completely as BeoNET implied in their press release entitled "US shuts down Yugoslav Internet."

BeoNET's over-reaction was made even more clear late on Friday, when US State Department Spokesman James Rubin formally stated that the Yugoslav Internet was not a target.

For the moment, BeoNET's accusations are exaggerated, and their more recent statements only speak of the disruption of service being "postponed" for the time being. According to Loral Orion statements, the entire incident may have resulted from a slight misunderstanding after Loral Orion informed BeoNET that Clinton's executive order "seemed to mean" that service might have to end. BeoNET may have simply overestimated the finality of Loral Orion's warning message.

But BeoNET's fears are not as unjustified as their knee-jerk call to rally around the flag of Internet freedom. After NATO's counter-productive attack on Serb TV, everyone in the Yugoslav information sector has good reason to fear for their livelihood - and their lives.

One can understand the West's indignation at the Serb propaganda machine, and the Internet, like the television, has been used to spread the most pernicious of lies. Certainly the disappearance of genocide-ignoring disinformation services such as Serbia Info News, run by Belgrade's Ministry of Information, would be no great loss to the world. Just as an example of what the world would be missing: when reporting UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson's visit to Yugoslavia last week, Serbia Info News reported her criticism of NATO but said nothing of her condemnation of ethnic cleansing of Kosova or Milosevic's refusal to meet with her. This is typical for this service which only ever relays half-truths at best.

But although one may not like the disinformation on many Serb Internet sites, destroying them, either with bombs or executive orders, always makes it look as if the attacker has something to hide. What's worse, disrupting Loral Orion's service to Yugoslavia would do more than isolate some of that country's information sources, because the Internet is a two-way information highway.

Yugoslav ISPs may eventually end up as unintended victims of these new sanctions, but it is essential to realise that both information and disinformation would be curtailed if this executive order were to take hold of Loral Orion. Information travels both ways on the net. If the world is cut off from Yugoslav news sources, this will mean that the reverse is also true: Yugoslavs will not have access to Internet news services from the West.

If the recent State Department statements are to be trusted, perhaps the American government has simply realised that it would be better to keep things as they are and let the lies leak out so that the truth can seep in.

Andrew Stroehlein, 14 May 1999


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