Web hosting and "illegal" activity
July 22, 2006 10:09 PM   Subscribe

Web hosting and "illegal" activity

I'm looking at various hosting options -- going through some very useful threads with the webhosting tag.

Here's the thing though: the terms of service of dreamhost, textdrive,hostgator and verve all, in one way or another say I can't host "illegal" material.

I was thinking of hosting material on things that are entirely legal where I am, but may not be legal where the hosting company is -- they're all in the US, right? So, say I'm in Amsterdam and I want to create my-favourite-marijuana.com where people can post about smoking dope in dope caf├ęs, or I'm somewhere gambling is legal and I want to create a gambling website, etc., are they going to regard it as "illegal" and refuse to host me? Or worse, decide it's illegal after the fact and cut me off?

Their TOSs tend to be so broad as to be nonsensical.

Verve won't host me if my content "promotes illegal drugs, violates export control laws, relates to illegal gambling" -- but illegal where? They also helpfully state their hosting plans can't be used either for "pornography" or "child pornography".

TextDrive says it won't host "any material in violation of any applicable law or regulation" or material "in violation of any local, state, federal or non-United States law or regulation". Really? Like, say, the prohibition on representational art of any kind under the Taliban?

Hostgator is actually quite detailed, though very offputting -- their TOS says I can only use their servers for "lawful purposes" and requires me to follow "The laws of the State of Florida, the State of Texas, and the United States of America". So, basically nothing the Bush brothers wouldn't like.

I'd be very interesting in your thoughts and experiences. Am I going to be forced to use some shady "adult" hosting service, not a mainstream one?
posted by AmbroseChapel to Computers & Internet (24 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"Am I going to be forced to use some shady 'adult' hosting service, not a mainstream one?"

Effectively, because otherwise you have to worry that your host will close your site as soon as Mrs. Grundy complains. Why not use a Dutch or German host?
posted by orthogonality at 10:14 PM on July 22, 2006

Sez the FAQ from my webhost:

Can I host adult content on your servers?

We allow adult content. However you should contact our support desk to verify that your site fits our parameters.

A friend of mine who hosted porn had no trouble with them. YMMV of course.
posted by timetoevolve at 10:17 PM on July 22, 2006

This is interesting to me as well. Are German hosts really more permissive than US hosts (and for what subsets of "illegal" content)? What are some reputable/affordable web hosts in permissive countries?
posted by nixxon at 10:23 PM on July 22, 2006

I use NearlyFreeSpeech.net for hosting, and their policies are very liberal. I think they're worth checking out.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:26 PM on July 22, 2006

I think they are more concerned with you hosting infringing material, kiddie porn etc., not legal discussions about acts which themselves might not be legal.
posted by caddis at 10:32 PM on July 22, 2006

The market for web hosting is huge, so hosts can afford to risk losing customers by disallowing all sorts of things. Finding a host that allows IRC hosting can be hard, too. Essentially, they find that it's easier to turn away 'potentially bad' clients than it is to have to deal with problems all days. Most TOS/AUPs also include a clause allowing the host to terminate service at any time, for any reason, so even if what you host is not prohibited, they're still free to cancel your account.

The ultimate place to host is HavenCo, though it's ludicrously expensive ($750/mo. seems to be their cheapest plan). They're on some sort of WW2 structure in the middle of the ocean, off of England's coast, and have declared (under maritime law) themselves a sovereign nation. They don't allow child porn or spam, but otherwise, they're fine with anything: they have no copyright laws, for example.

If you're concerned about US laws (and who isn't these days?), I second the suggestion to host something where the laws aren't as big of a problem, such as Amsterdam. I seem to recall there being some major carrier hotels there, so finding a host shouldn't be an issue. (I'm at a loss to name any, though.)
posted by fogster at 10:34 PM on July 22, 2006

Dreamhost doesn't seem to be a problem. "Illegal" probably means child porn & pirated stuff. When it comes to illegal drugs, you have first amendment rights to discuss your opinions and past experiences of them. Even current use, as well, although that's risky for a different reason.
posted by daksya at 10:34 PM on July 22, 2006

OK, on the one hand NearlyFreeSpeech looks great but on the other, their TOS says I many not publish content that "is unlawful under the laws of the United States of America" and I may not "Engage in any activity that would cause NearlyFreeSpeech.NET to be in violation of the terms of service it obtains from other parties." which could mean just about anything.

Let's be more specific.

In Australia, there are a couple of jurisdictions where posession of small amounts of cannabis is effectively legal. If the cops find you have no more than three plants no taller than a metre, they don't bust you.

So if I sign up for hosting with one of those companies and provide handy hints for the home dope-grower, I am promoting illegal behaviour, illegal in the USA at least. But if I put some kind of disclaimer on how-to-grow-dope.com that the information is intended only for people in such jurisdictions, would that hold up?

Subsidiary question -- what about ads? Presumably the big ad providers like Google and Yahoo wouldn't touch this with a ten-foot pole?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 11:35 PM on July 22, 2006

A European hosting service may have more lenient rules about some things, but there are other areas in which the rules in the US are probably much more attractive.

The First Amendment is a big deal in this regard, and in particular because of the major differences between Europe and the US regarding libel.

It's much easier to prevail in a libel suit in Europe. In the US, for instance, the truth can never be libelous, and opinions cannot be either. Both of them are considered "protected speech" under the First Amendment. Neither of those statements is true for all of Europe.

The whole question of legal jurisdiction regarding these kinds of things is still quite fluid, but in general the way things are landing is that the country where the server is located is the one whose laws have jurisdiction. That means that a post on a server in Europe might be considered libelous, but the exact same post on a server in the US might not be.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:35 PM on July 22, 2006

I suppose I could always just email these people and ask them...
posted by AmbroseChapel at 11:38 PM on July 22, 2006

Their TOS says I many not publish content that "is unlawful under the laws of the United States of America"

That's just it - it's not unlawful to DISCUSS growing marijuana plants, (although it is probably highly suspect). It's just illegal to DO it. Now, the hosting service, being a business and not the government, can put limits on your speech far beyond what the government can. The laws of the United States of America, however, only limit "speech" in particular cases generally involving treason and child pornography (IANAL).
posted by muddgirl at 11:52 PM on July 22, 2006

And now someone's gonna come along and point to some interstate commerce law that specifically defines discussion of illegal acts as conspiracy to commit a crime, or something like that.
posted by muddgirl at 11:54 PM on July 22, 2006

it's not unlawful to DISCUSS growing marijuana plants

Two questions spring to mind:
  1. how can you be sure?
  2. how can I be sure?
How can I be sure that in, say, Oklahoma, it isn't illegal to "promote" the use of drugs by informing people how to grow dope plants? I can't possibly research the laws of every state (and county!) in the US -- and if some citizen of Muskogee, OK. looks at my website and gets upset, I won't fall foul of that law?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:21 AM on July 23, 2006

You can't be sure, but Erowid and Shroomery have been up and running for quite many years now. Erowid's based in SF, and the latter is also in the US as their legal disclaimer cites US Federal Laws. On both sites, you have explicit discussions on cultivation techniques and current use. So if Muskogee citizens didn't like Erowid/Shroomery and it was illegal, these would have been shut down long ago.
posted by daksya at 12:53 AM on July 23, 2006

seconding nearlyfreespeech.net check them out.
posted by psychobum at 1:00 AM on July 23, 2006

I don't think this discussion can continue without mention of the recent DEA/FBI-induced Canadian takedown of Overgrow.com and it's owners.

Their affiliation with a Canadian cannabis seedbank, Heaven's Stairway, was their downfall (ala Marc Emery).

They were hosted in Canada.
posted by i_am_a_Jedi at 6:22 AM on July 23, 2006

The ultimate place to host is HavenCo

SeaLand recently suffered from a debilitating fire. It was a cool idea, but always succeptible to single point-of-failure.
posted by odinsdream at 6:40 AM on July 23, 2006

HavenCo was a failure. Google Cache of what the founder and CTO of HavenCo had to say.

"Unfortunately, the project has only been successful as a preliminary experiment, and is no longer a functioning datahaven."
I wouldn't even consider it. The place is a joke. There are plenty of other stable webhosts in many other locations.

And if it's just a website about pot, I'd hardly worry about the DEA busting down your door. IIRC, overgrow was actually importing & shipping marijuana seeds (the wikipedia article says that too) which is quite different than just talking about pot cafes.
"hightimes.com" is hosted by a company in New York. One would think that they'd be a huge target, but they're still up and running.

How about xs4all? They're a Dutch internet company that's been around for a long time, and I'm quite sure they allow such content. :)
posted by drstein at 7:54 AM on July 23, 2006

Go with xs4all.
posted by phrontist at 12:19 PM on July 23, 2006

Hosting information about marijuana is not illegal in the US. erowid is hosted in the US, for example. That doesn't mean hosting providers will let you host stuff there.

The simplest thing would be to get a DSL connection and hosting it yourself. Other then that, it makes a lot of sense to just host in the Netherlands.
posted by delmoi at 12:41 PM on July 23, 2006

Subsidiary question -- what about ads? Presumably the big ad providers like Google and Yahoo wouldn't touch this with a ten-foot pole?

Definetly not.
posted by delmoi at 12:44 PM on July 23, 2006

I suppose I could always just email these people and ask them...

Bingo. I work at a web host and we're more than happy to answer questions like this. In fact, we'd much prefer that you send an email to support before signing up with us than you just put up content that turns out to be against our TOS and we have to shut you off later.
posted by TungstenChef at 1:11 PM on July 23, 2006

I've decided to write to a couple of the hosting companies and actually ask them.

Just in case there's any more juice in this question, what do we think the difference is between discussing an activity legal in Country X, but illegal in the host country, and actively facilitating it?

Say I not only allow people to discuss smoking dope in Amsterdam, but put up a listings site with the names, addresses and phone numbers of places you can buy dope?
posted by AmbroseChapel at 6:21 PM on July 23, 2006

Updating this question, because I emailed three of the hosting companies:
  • Verve haven't written back. Their form redirected me to their front page, not to a "your message has been sent" page, so I don't even know if they got the message; not very impressive for a hosting company.
  • DreamHost, with their typical air of friendly incompetence, wrote back to tell me to consult with my lawyer as the activity I was talking about really wasn't legal. I confirmed that I was outside the US and it was legal where I was and they replied that it would be fine to list "legitimate businesses".
  • TextDrive replied with just "Sounds fine to me. [A male first name]"; which doesn't exactly look legally binding...
I've done my due diligence at least.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 12:10 AM on August 1, 2006

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