When dealing with abuse on the Web, hosts are a critical player. More than just copyright issues, hosts play a critical role in dealing with spam, illegal content and network abuse.
Since hosts control the servers in their datacenter, they are vital in shutting down people who choose to abuse their service and nearly every host has a lengthy terms of service that dictates what their customers can and can not do on their networks.
The problem, however, is that many hosts don’t enforce their own terms. Spammers, infringers and others run wild on their service while people attempting to report them are left out in the cold.
Much of this is due to ignorance of the rules, with the barriers to entering the hosting industry dropping every day, more and more smaller companies, without expertise in this aspect of this field, have been getting into the market, especially as niche players.
However, this poor handling of abuse is dangerous not just to the Web but to themselves. Failing to address abuse issues correctly can open a host up to legal and technological repercussions (such as blacklisting) that can sink a hosting business.
So, if you are a host or work with one, here are the five of the biggest mistakes commonly made when dealing with abuse.
1. Not Having an Accurate Abuse Contact
If someone wants to report abuse to you, who do they contact? There needs to be an account set up for this and it needs to be on your public site.
Likewise, this account needs to be checked regularly and by someone with authority to act. Too many times I’ve tried to report spam blogs or other issues only to find that I have to email the sales or support team to get a response of any variety, even though an abuse account is available.
Likewise, also make sure that the information in your IP whois is up to date as well. Many times I have found IP whois information that points to email address that bounce all incomming messages.
It is crucial for hosts to keep their abuse information up to date, in a location where it can be found and to be monitoring for and acting upon reports as they are received.
2. Not Having an Internal Abuse Policy
What steps does your company take after receiving a spam complaint? After a copyright infringement notices? Etc. Where larger companies tend to have policies for just about everything on the planet, smaller ones tend to eschew them, even in areas where they are necessary.
These policies don’t have to be extremely elaborate, but they do have to detail the steps that one would take from receiving an abuse complaint to its resolution including determining the type of infraction, fact checking the complaint, the steps that should be taken and the appropriate resolution.
Not having these policies leads to confusion and favoritism both of which can lead to problems.
Additionally, it is wroth noting that the policy should not be all or nothing. Some hosts will stand by their customers no matter what, even those who legitimately deserve the boot, others will drop their customers at the slightest infraction. There has to be a middle ground where customers are stood by when appropriate, punished as deserved and dropped when needed.
3. Not Being DMCA/EDEC Compliant
If you are a host within the U.S. or the EU, not being DMCA or EDEC compliant (respectively) may make your host a target for those who wish to set up sites for the purpose of infringing content and may expose you to legal risk as you may be found partially liable for any infringement that takes place on your servers.
For example, being DMCA compliant involves registering a contact with the U.S. Copyright Office and expeditiously removing or disabling access to works after receiving a proper notification of infringement.
Registering a contact with the USCO costs $105 currently and setting up the procedure is effectively free, especially if you already have a good abuse system in place. However, doing this can help you avoid a major potential legal pitfall down the road.
4. Not Communicating
With abuse issues, silence can be deadly. Talk to your customers about complaints that have been filed, talk to the person who filed them about the action you’re taking and, if needed, talk to authorities about any legal activity. At best, silence leaves people frustrated and angry, at worst, it legal and issues, including possibly criminal charges if the violation is serious enough and the silence viewed as deliberate.
Though I understand that hosts don’t like to talk about abuse it is important to be clear and keep all parties informed. To avoid saying things that might harm the company legally, it may be wise to create stock letters that can be customized for various situations.
In addition to avoiding legal issues from saying something inappropriate, stock letters also speed up the abuse process, making it cheaper for you and faster for everyone involved. Though often criticized by those who receive them, especially when they receive one that doesn’t apply, they are an invaluable tool.
5. Not Talking With a Lawyer
Finally, perhaps the most important piece of advice, you need to make sure you are aware of all your legal obligations and the only way to do that is speak with a knowledgeable attorney in your area.
Though this article above covers some of the broad strokes, the specifics are best left to lawyers. Having an attorney do an audit on your polices and practices is key to ensuring you’re complying with all laws specific to your country and region. Also, this will help you understand the kinds of abuse you don’t have to enforce yourself, such as libel in the U.S., and will help you streamline your entire abuse process.
Talking with an attorney may be pricey, but it is well worth it in the long run.
More and more startups are getting into the hosting game, filling in niches and providing services larger players can’t. However, while many of these companies have a great deal of technical expertise, they don’t always have the legal and abuse background to understand what it takes to keep their service free of unwanted content.
Being smart about abuse isn’t something that one learns while studying networking or system’s administration nor is it in the manual of any reseller hosting account. Rather, it is something you have to work on and study.
Abuse may be one of the most unpleasant aspects of the hosting business, but it is also one of the most important. For that reason, it is worth investing the time and money into getting it right.