FTC Shuts Down 3FN Hosting Company

Those who had accounts at 3FN recently received a shock when they found that their hosting accounts were completely down. However, it wasn’t a server error, network interruption or even a natural disaster that took the host down, it was the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which won a permanent injunction against the host in April, according to records unsealed earlier this month.

According to the FTC, as well as its security experts, 3FN was responsible for a wide range of reprehensible behavior on the Web including hosting command centers for spambot networks, which are networks of thousands of hacked PCs used to send spam, the distribution of malware, phishing scams and a variety of illegal pornography.

The FTC also alleges that 3FN attempted to shield its customers by ignoring takedown requests from the security community and moving around clients to different IP addresses to help them avoid detection.

All totaled, according to the FTC, 3FN made approximately $15,000 per month over the course of 6 years, an estimated $1 million in revenue.

The shut down of 3FN is unprecedented, but it may only be the beginning. The FTC is clearly working to crackdown on rogue hosts and the 3FN operation is likely only the first. Given that it was a cooperative effort with the aid of dozens of organizations, public and private, it is almost certain the FTC will be using its newfound cooperative spirit to target other hosts.

Could your host be on the list? The good news is probably not.

Earning the Wrath

To be clear, 3FN was not a random Web host with a few bad apples that was suddenly and without warning closed. By all accounts, 3FN was a rampant host for illegal content that had spurned multiple warnings, from public and private groups. Furthermore, the company had actively courted such accounts by posting ads on forums and Web sites that catered to these activities, billing itself as a host for such content.

According to the FTC, there were a few legitimate customers on 3FN but they were small in number compared to those engaged in illegal behavior.

It’s clear that 3FN was not a Hostgator or a Godaddy, a large Web host that occasionally gets a bad apple and shuts them down quickly. Rather, it was a host mostly built and used for illegal purposes, thus why it earned the wrath of the FTC.

However, there are a lot of hosts, such as free speech hosts that operate in a gray area between a regular host and a host like 3FN. Though most claim to follow the law, the AUP of 3FN (archived) said the same thing. In short, a legitimate customer might have been unaware of the illegal activity taking place on 3FN and been quite surprised by the shut down.

The question then becomes, how does a hosting customer avoid this kind of problem? The answer is actually fairly simple.

Avoiding the Dragnet

There’s an old saying: If you don’t want to get caught in the net, don’t swim with the tuna.

With literally thousands of legitimate Web hosts and resellers on the Web, winding up with one of the few companies that will likely be a target for such a shutdown is unlikely at worst. However, it is still worth taking a moment to check out your host and make sure it is not on any potential hit list.

  1. Host with Known Companies: When possible, work with well-known and respected companies on the Web. They are known and respected for a reason. Though many debate over speed and service, they are almost certainly active in the fight against spam and other kinds of illegal content.
  2. Check Blacklists: Any host that has enough of a bad reputation to be considered for FTC action is almost certainly on the spam blacklists.
  3. Vet Companies Carefully: If you haven’t heard of a company before, at least vet the company carefully. Both search for reviews of the company and look up any information you can find on the Better Business Bureau. 3FN, unfortunately, had no ratings.

If you do those things before signing up with a host, you will most likely be ok. But even if you don’t, the odds of this being the problem you have are slim to none. Instead, you’ll have to wrestle with impacted search rankings, malware warnings and other problems that often arise from having bad neighbors on your network.

Bottom Line

Almost certainly, the 3FN takedown is just the beginning. With spam still on the rise, despite the closure, it is very likely that other hosts will begin to feel the heat of the FTC and other government agencies, either pushed to change their ways or shutter their doors.

However, it’s unlikely many legitimate hosting customers will feel this pinch. Though some will get caught in the government’s net, right now the effort seems focused only on rogue hosts that repeatedly rebuke efforts to cooperate. As such, only the worst cases will see this kind of drastic action.

Hopefully, legitimate Internet users will have nothing to fear from this and will actually see a great benefit as they deal with less spam and malware than before.

That may not be likely, but it certainly is the end goal.

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