The web hosting industry is subject to rapid change. Factors such as technological advances, the volatility of markets, and the introduction of legislation can change the course of many businesses – or even derail them. Others can be seen to be used as puppets of governments to collect information. Without general oversight or a single, unified voice, the web hosting industry lacks the power to counter changes that would negatively affect them, their customers, and the Internet as a whole.
And while cooperation certainly exists in web hosting, there are some serious issues and considerations standing in the way of web hosts addressing industry issues, and promoting shared ideals and goals.
Not All Web Hosts are Alike
Dan Garon is a consultant in the hosting services industry and has been involved in the governance debate for a number of years. He says one of the primary difficulties of forming a body to represent web hosts is determining who exactly makes up the hosting industry. This is especially apparent when many companies that don’t call themselves web hosts (like Facebook and Google, which host plenty of content) are taking on what are essentially hosting duties.
“We have to remember that companies like Google and Microsoft are some of the largest web hosts in the world, if not the largest. And their set of advocacy interests are not going to mirror the interests of smaller providers,” Garon says. “One of the challenges we’re always going to have in advocating for more or less regulation in our industry is determining exactly who our constituents are.”
Given the diverse needs of these web hosting players, when it comes to specific legislation, they are unlikely to always take a common stance. For instance, Google and Facebook protested the Stop Online Piracy Act (or SOPA). In contrast, web host GoDaddy initially showed open support for SOPA, which sparked a boycott and the eventual reversal of the company’s position on the controversial legislation.
The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (or CISPA) is another example of proposed legislation that has divided the hosting community. CISPA would basically allow businesses and government to share of information on cyber threats – often without judicial oversight. Critics have said the measure would erode privacy standards and open the door to more government snooping.
Web hosts such as HostGator, NameCheap, Gandi.net, and ServInt came out against CISPA, yet Facebook supported it. Facebook was opposed to intellectual property enforcement proposals SOPA and the Protect IP Act (or PIPA). But the passage of CISPA would have been different since it would essentially provide Facebook with legal immunity from handing over user information to authorities.
Seeking a Voice for Web Hosts
ServInt chief operating officer and i2Coalition chairman Christian Dawson traveled to the latest ICANN meeting in Durban, South Africa this month to strive for more representation from the hosting industry at the meeting.
ICANN oversees the domain name system of the Internet, and its meetings seek a consensus on how the “names and numbers” of the Internet should run. Dawson says web hosts should feel like they have a role in ICANN discussions and decisions. After all, they’re key stakeholders.
“Hosters are the biggest resellers of domains in the world and one of the biggest consumers of IP space,” Dawson says. “What we do is theoretically already is a part of ICANN, we just aren’t a part of talking about it.”
Dawson sees ICANN as one of a handful of organizations such as IGF, IAB, IETF and IRTF that make up a multi-stakeholder model in which no single entity has too much power over the shape of the global Internet. “Each control a piece of the puzzle of the Internet. Nobody owns it all,” he says. “This works well with the decentralized way the Internet has developed.”
Some people are proponents of expanding the role of ICANN to deal with web hosting issues. Others propose that a single body such as the International Telecommunications Union, an arm of the UN, should have a greater role in Internet governance and issues related to hosting. And others propose a multi-stakeholder group focused on hosting issues.
“[T]he value that the multi-stakeholder group brings to a subject to the global community, and its ability to get global community buy-in is all that keeps them relevant,” Dawson says. “That is in broad contrast to an alternative like the ITU, which wouldn’t need to continue to innovate and prove itself it were able to acquire governance power.”
And while Dawson remains open to different approaches, it seems that several agencies want to step in and take over governance.
“There were lots of different policies put forth by multiple countries to take over certain aspects of how the Internet functions,” Dawson says.
Whatever governance body takes form, it’s imperative that web hosts have a voice, he says.
The Implications of Web Hosting Policies Beyond Web Hosts
While it remains unclear how to give voice to web hosts and their diverse issues and concerns, there are clear examples of where policy has had an impact on web hosting and the public at large.
Garon says the US government uses Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) requests as a mechanism that makes their requests to obtain information entirely secret. The FISA requests are heard by secret courts, which operate under a classified body of case law, and are presided over by a small cadre of handpicked federal judges.
“They’re ex parte proceedings, which means there’s only one party present in the courtroom. The government tries to persuade the judge to sign a search warrant. The judge only hears one side of the argument, and in virtually every case, the judge approves what the government wants,” Garon says.
In light of the recent revelation of the National Security Agency’s surveillance apparatus, many companies have attempted to draw public attention to these FISA requests. Google wanted the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to allow them to publish aggregate numbers of national security requests, including FISA disclosures. And Yahoo has made it known that it strongly objects to federal demands for information on its users to which it must comply.
And FISA isn’t the only mechanism used to request information from web hosts.
“One of the most troubling developments has been where hosting providers have received warrantless government mandates to supply customer information, through so-called National Security Letters,” Garon says. “It’s not even within the scope of FISA approval. The government says ‘give us this information and you can’t tell anyone we asked,’ so what are you supposed to do? You can’t even tell your customers.”
Garon says National Security Letters have drawn much concern from web hosts of all varieties, and that, despite the differences between hosts, it could likely be a rallying point for the web hosting industry.
A common cause could be just what’s needed for the hosting industry to form some sort of consensus. That cause could be providing a free and open Internet, which would promote competition among companies, and give customers assurance that someone’s looking out for their interests and safety.
But whatever this consensus is, the path towards it is undoubtedly created through a dialog that includes the voices of a diverse group of web hosts.