For the most part, we expect a Web host’s terms of service to be fairly straightforward. Don’t be a spammer, avoid any illegal content and don’t try to host a major site on an “unlimited” account and you should be fine.
Unfortunately, it isn’t always that easy.
Terms of service are not written for the protection of hosting customers, but for the protection of the hosting company. They are written by attorneys representing them and are designed to give the company maximum leeway in who they terminate and for what reasons.
As such, you often run into situations where an activity might seem to be allowed under the TOS but isn’t. This doesn’t mean that the host is going to enforce their terms of service every time, just that they could if they wanted.
Many hosts look for violations like these to terminate the accounts of problematic hosting customers (not that they need a reason) and use these types of technicalities as a means cleaning house.
So what are some examples of things that may not be allowed under your TOS. There are too many to count but here are five to consider:
1. Contests and Competitions
If you plan on holding a contest on your site, especially if there is a cash prize involved, you may want to run it by your host first. Most hosts disallow gambling sites to run on their service but the definition is generally left very broad.
Virtually any game of chance can become a “gambling” or “lottery” site in someone’s eyes and be the target for closure or citation.
So what does this mean for your friendly giveaway on your blog? Probably not much. But if you institute an element of chance and have a cash prize (or even if you don’t) your host, in many cases, could at least theoretically close you down.
2. Image Hotlinking
If you’ve read my previous articles about image hotlinking, this issue should not be a surprise. Hosts don’t want you creating your own Photobucket on your “unlimited” hosting account.
That much may be understandable but what if you open up your blog’s images for hotlinking or offer banners and buttons for such use? The answer is less clear. Most likely, you’ll fly under the radar so long as your use is slight but if it reaches a level where it becomes a problem, your host may either close you or force you to use hotlink protection.
Whenever you allow other sites to hotlink content from your service, you wind up entering into a TOS gray area that you most likely do not want to explore.
3. Personal Backups
If you need to get files from your office computer to your home one but don’t want to mess around with burned CDs or thumb drives, your hosting account can be a very tempting solution. Unfortunately, personal backups, or even backups of any variety, are not allowed on most hosts via the terms of service.
This is especially true on “unlimited” hosting accounts but is often true on those with real limits. The reason is that hosts, as a service, are geared toward hosting sites and not files. Web sites take up little hard drive space but use a decent amount of bandwidth where backup storage does the reverse. This means too much of such storage can negatively impact the network.
Granted, a few personal files will likely not even be noticed so you can transfer that Word file between computers without worrying, but excessive use of this could result in being called out on a TOS violation.
4. Mailing Lists
We understand well that hosts don’t want spammers operating on their service but many, rather than get into a debate what is and what is not spam, don’t even allow legitimate mailing lists that are double opt-in.
The reason is pretty simple, there’s a lot of gray area between what is spam and what is legitimate bulk email and even experts disagree on which is which. Hosts dislike these kinds of arguments and, instead, just prefer a simple, enforceable policy they can apply across the board. This saves time, money and drama.
So, if you want a mailing list, you’re better off using a service like MailChimp than trying to host your own.
5. Whatever Else the Host Decides
Finally, it is important to think about this particular issue. Most hosts have a clause in their TOS or AUP that allows them to change the policy at any time without any prior notice. In short, what is allowed today might not be tomorrow simply because your host changes its mind.
Though it might seem like something that host’s rarely do, the Electronic Frontier Foundation launched a service called TOS Back to track some of the TOSes of some of the major services on the Web and found that they are changed much more often than people realize.
While the odds of actually being bit by one of these changes are slim to none, it is important to remember that the clause is there and it could be used against you, or any other customer, at any time.
In the end, if your host wants to cut your account, they can and will. Their TOS and other policies give them the right to cut any account for any reason they so choose, but very often many rely on technicalities to shift the blame onto the customer.
The good news is that most hosts don’t want to shut accounts as it would be a very poor business model. They only want to close the small percentage that is costing them money so, as long as you don’t make yourself an outlier, you a probably going to be fine even if you do something that violates the TOS in some small, technical way.
However, draw attention to yourself and you may be surprised at just how flexible your host’s TOS is and how strongly it favors their position, whatever it may be.
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