Legal Issues with Choosing a Host

Filed as Features on June 30, 2008 1:59 pm

Finding a new host is never easy.

First, one has to choose the kind of hosting and the plan that they need, something that is almost impossible with a new site. Second, they have to find a quality host at a reasonable price, which is also difficult because nearly all hosts have at least some negative reviews and some devout fans.

However, one area that often gets overlooked when picking a new host is the legal side of the relationship. Hosts and their clients have a complicated and somewhat delicate legal arrangement between and now two companies approach it exactly the same way.

Though no one enjoys reading the lengthy agreements we have to sign, there is actually some very important information in there, including the following items.

Country of Origin

One of the first things to look at when considering a host is the country it is located in as it determines the laws that it operates under.

Typically speaking, it is best to locate a host that is within your own country as the laws will be more familiar to you, they will be able to provide support in your native language and they will be the easiest to get in contact with.

If that is not practical (IE: There are no acceptable hosts within your country or most of your audience is oversears), selecting a host within the U.S. or EU are good choices as the legal climate there has been stable for a few years now and the rules are fairly standard.

However, more important than the actual country is being sure that you understand what you are getting into and that involves reading through the terms of service and acceptable use policies to be sure that nothing you are going to do will run afoul of their guidelines and result in your site being taken offline against your will.

Things to Look For

When you are going through these terms, be sure to look up these following items:

  1. Billing: Billing is one of the most common issues people have with their host. It is important to understand how much will you be charged? When will you be charged it? Is there a setup fee? How will you pay it? Is it automatic or invoiced? Understanding these issues will go a long to ensuring a good relationship with a host.
  2. Server Restrictions: In addition to understanding how much space and bandwidth you get, make a note of other restrictions on server use. For example, most shared hosts do not allow “always running” scripts such as chatrooms. Take special note for under what conditions your host can suspend your account, very useful for when you are experiencing a Digg or similar traffic rush.
  3. Content Restrictions: I typically try to avoid hosts that do not allow adult material. Though I have no intention of publishing pornography on any of my sites, the definition of adult content is subjective, even within the courtroom, and some articles I’ve written could be mistaken for pornography at first glance. Typically, it is best to have as few content restrictions as legally possible.
  4. Copyright/Trademark: Though laws such as the DMCA and the EDEC have largely standardized copyright enforcement by hosts, many still have their own policies and it is best to understand what they are and how they might impact you. Take special note of counter-notice procedures.
  5. How Responsibilities: Different hosts and even different accounts on the same host often have disparate responsibilities. Understand what your host is required to support, referring to how “managed” or “unmanaged” your service is. Also, see if there is an uptime guarantee and what happens if it is not met. Also, some hosts offer a guarantee for hardware swap-out times, see if the one you are considering does as well and what the penalty is for them not meeting the advertised time frame.
  6. Cancellation: At some point you will probably want to leave. How do you cancel your account? How much notice do you have to give? What happens if you cancel before your contract is up? Every host is different and many make it artificially hard to cancel. It is best to look at this closely before signing up.

Though it looks like a great deal of information to obtain, it should only take a few minutes to get it. Considering the amount of time it takes to find an acceptable host and the amount of headaches such research can save, it makes sense to take a few extra moments and do the research.

Taking a Pass

Most of the time, the information gleaned is just for one’s own knowledge. However, I’ve encountered many situations where one host’s terms of service make me take a pass on them in favor of someone else.

The important thing is to be honest about what you need and examine what is likely to go wrong in your relationship. Also, look at your site from the perspective of someone who is angry with you and seeking to shut you down through any means available, no matter how petty.

Determine in advance what you need and what your most likely sticking points are. Though no host will be perfect, you can find one that mitigates against most of the potential issues.

This may not help you avoid conflict, but it certainly can help you avoid catastrophe.

Conclusions

Though we like to think that the hosting terms of services and acceptable use policies are cookie-cutter and identical, as someone who reads them regularly, I can tell you for certain that they are not.

It is important to read these closely and understand the rules your hosting account will operate under because those rules don’t just impact you, but potentially all of your visitors.

Such legal issues are one of the least “fun” parts about picking a new host, it is one of the most important. Because even if a host is reliable and fast, your site can still go down due to conflicts with your provider and others on the Web.

It is far better to be prepared and be aware than leave it up to chance.

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