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Illegal Content: Diligence Helps Web Hosts Maintain a Quality Reputation

When contemplating which web host to do business with, many people start the evaluation with critical statistics like uptime, price and the availability of customer service. But it’s equally important to consider the host’s reputation when it comes to preventing illegal content from being hosted on its infrastructure.

The Risks of Hosting Illegal Content

Illegal content often starts with smaller events, like copyright infringements that involve, say, unlicensed photos or pirated software. Another potential starting point for trouble is an unmonitored comments section, which can turn into a breeding ground for spammy advertisements or downloads of illegal and objectionable material.

Consider the case of web-host owner Kimihiko Makino, a Japanese national who was recently sentenced to 20 years in prison for hosting illegal content on his servers, according to the United States Department of Justice. Of course, that's the extreme end of the scale. What about companies hosting less objectionable — but still illegal — content?

In 2011 and 2012, the FBI obtained search warrants for servers connected to the Lulz Security group and the University of Pittsburgh bomb threat, respectively.

In both cases, the seizure of these shared servers caused service interruptions for other sites hosted on the same stack and seriously damaged the reputation of these sites. And in Australia, the Abbott government is considering measures that would force Internet service providers and web hosts to “take down” any websites violating copyright laws. In other words, hosting illegal content can have serious repercussions.

Know the Rules

So how do you evaluate a prospective web host’s vigilance when it comes to monitoring illegal content hosted on the company’s servers? First, look for a robust privacy policy. It should include language that addresses the protection of customers’ personal information and clearly articulates that content posted on hosted web sites is public and therefore subject to scrutiny.

In addition, the host should provide an Acceptable Use Policy, which details what is and isn’t allowed to be hosted on the host’s servers. It's also critical for you to run any potential web hosts through a basic Google search to make sure nothing like the Kimihiko judgment mentioned above has ever happened to your provider.

Of course, even the most diligent company won't catch everything — which is why the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA) contains two “safe harbor” provisions to protect service providers and website owners. The first covers content posted by users — for example, visitors who post content on message boards. So long as the infringing content was posted “at the direction of a user,” a website owner or provider is not liable for monetary damages. The second safe harbor covers hyperlinks that accidentally direct users to illegal content, protecting companies that make honest linking mistakes.

Of course, the DCMA safe harbors come with provisions: First, companies must be unaware that the content linked to or hosted is illegal. Second, companies must act “expeditiously” to remove the material or block access once notified. For website owners, this means responding to complaints immediately if notified about illegal content — and if you discover similar content on any other site that’s hosted by your provider, it should quickly clean up the mess.

Even small lapses in content management can mean lost customers, a tarnished reputation or total shutdown. Choosing the right web host means looking for strong privacy policies, diligent oversight and speedy response to any user complaints.

[image: aetb/iStock/ThinkStockPhotos]

ABOUT THIS CONTRIBUTOR
Freelance writer
Douglas Bonderud is a technology expert with a deep understanding of web hosting, cloud computing and data security.
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