7 Rules: Being a Good Neighbor

(Note: This article is based on my perspective as someone who regularly is forced to file abuse complaints and on my conversations with those who run abuse departments and work in them. Feedback from other abuse professionals is greatly appreciated.) 

Web hosts don't go into business hoping or expecting to be a bastion for plagiarists, spammers or other scum of the Web. They simply want to provide a valuable service to the public and, perhaps, make some money along the way. 

Many don't even foresee or plan for the potential of abuse. They simply throw up a service, open up their doors and are caught completely off guard the first time someone starts violating their terms of service or, worse yet, the law. With no plan and no means of effectively stopping abuse, they are quickly overrun, losing control of their service.

Handling abuse and stopping violators is not the fun part of running a Web host or service. It is neither profitable, pleasant nor directly beneficial to other users. Nonetheless, it is critical to do so effectively, not just for the sake of your own future, but for the sake of the Web at large.

Like any neighborhood, one "bad house" can make life more difficult for everyone around it and, with the high level of connectivity found on the Web, practically everyone is "next door" to everyone else.

Therefore, it makes good sense to take a few moments and look at what it means to be a good neighbor online. It's not only a good business practice, but it's a way to ensure that the Web, as a whole, is stronger for your presence.

1. Know the Law

When entering any new line of business, it is important to understand the laws surrounding it. In this case, that means understanding copyright law, especially the DMCA (PDF) if you are hosting within the United States, laws related to decency on the Web, anti-spam legislation and any other law that might apply to your service. 

It would be wise, before starting up a site that is going to allow users to publish content online, to sit down with a lawyer that is experience in Web-related matters and bring your site into compliance with all applicable laws before it goes live. It's much easier to comply in adance than it is to try and retroactively bring a live site in line.  

2. Have a Clear Terms of Service

Once you understand the law, it's important to have a clear terms of service (TOS) that spells out your policies and potential repercussions for breaking them. There are many great stock TOSs that contain most of the needed items in proper legalese. However, if your service is unique or might have features not likely to be covered in a stock TOS, having a lawyer write it would most likely be the best course of action.

No matter what TOS you choose, it should be reviewed by a lawyer to ensure that it is complete and in the proper format. 

3. Be Proactive  when reasonable.

While no one can reasonably expect a Web host to proactively view all content to ensure that it doesn't violate copyright, decency or other laws, there are steps that a host can take to ensure that their server isn't abused. Captchas help prevent blog and comment spamming, limits on outgoing messages prevents other kinds of spamming and other precautions are available to prevent other kinds of abuse.

Preventing abuses proactively, when possible, not only saves on the manpower trying to handle them manually, but also on other resources as it prevents servers from needlessly processing junk content and bandwidth from being wasted on sending it.  

4. Offer a clear means for anyone, including non-members, to report abuse.

Automated measures can only go so far and, at some point, you're going to have to rely on humans to come forward and report abuses taking place on your servers. Whether it's copyright holders filing a DMCA notice, a good citizen reporting illegal content or an angry email user complaining about spam, the public can be your eyes and ears to problems on your service.

If content in your service can be viewed by the public, it is important to offer a means for non-members to report abuse. Requiring non-members to register about content that is publicly visible not only greatly discourages them from doing so, but often time outright prevents them. This encourages behavior against your TOS and sours your reputation with others. Message board admins, for example, need to offer a public email address or form to report abuse and sites with form-based abuse complaints need to offer an option for users that don't have accounts.

It's also important to ensure that the the path to file an abuse complaint is clearly spelled out. This can easily be added to your TOS and will save on support requests from people asking how to file a complaint.

5. Deal with abuse complaints fairly, timely and effectively.

Once abuse complaints are filed, they need to be dealt with appropriately. It's important to ensure that your site has a system in place as well as the manpower needed to research and handle most abuse complaints within 48 hours. If complaints are taking too long to handle or are taxing the system, changes in the process and increases in manypower (if financially possible) can help. 

Another way to speed up the process and make it more fair is to create a set of consequences for infractions. Determining what violations are worthy of cutting an account and which just call for a warning can eliminate a great deal of the subjectivity and speed up the handling of each case.

Finally, it's important to make sure your TOS isn't just a paper tiger and that repeat offenders are effectively banned. Failure to do so just creates the same problems as not having a TOS at all.  

6. Communicate

When dealing with abuse matters, communication is critical. It's important to keep in close touch with both your users/members as well as the person or persons doing the complaining. This not only ensures that the situation is handled fairly, but it also lets others know that you take their interests serious. This can help a great deal when trying to balance the needs of a member that ran afoul of your TOS while ensuring those that are complaining that the situation is being taken seriously.

In short, communication isn't just a good business practice, but a good abuse practice as well.  

7. Realize that it is your business at risk as well.

One of the most frustrating elements of dealing with abuse complaints is that it can feel as if you're spending your own resources, which may be very limited, to protect the interests of others. However, it's important to remember that it is your own interests that are at stake as well.

Beyond the possible legal repercussions, users tend to avoid sites that have a bad reputation. Furthermore, if a site becomes known as a "bad part of town" it might have elements of its service filtered out by related sites, for example, other email hosts often block letters from spam-friendly services and blogs regularly block pingbacks or comments from a questionable blog host. 

If a service gains a bad reputation, more and more immoral users will take to it and, as they do, the legitimate ones will be driven out. Since malicious users generally don't pay the bills or create much advertising revenue, it is a terrible blow to one's revenue and, eventually to one's ability to operate the service as a whole.

It's important to weed out and stop the bad apples while they are few in number to prevent the service from attracting too many and pushing out the good apples that are the strength of any legal Web service.

Conclusions

In the end, being a good neighbor on the Web not only makes the Web a better place for everyone else, but is critical to the survival of any new service. If one can't or otherwise doesn't stop plagiarists, spammers, scammers and other types of Internet vermin from overrunning the service, it is bad news for the Web and it is bad news for the site itself.

Nobody wins when abuse becomes rampant on a service. However, with a few simple steps and some advance planning, the problem can usually be stopped before it gets out of hand. It just requires one be willing to think about the unpleasant elements of running a site before it goes live.

In this case, being prepared is really half of the battle.

[tags]Plagiarism, Content Theft, Copyright Infringement, Terms of Service, Spam, Spamming[/tags]

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