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Free web hosting service aims to protect journalists from cyberattacks

Free web hosting service aims to protect journalists from cyberattacks

Janine Warner and David LaFontaine | August 23, 2017

This is the final part in a four-part series about journalism and cybersecurity. See part onepart two and part three.

If you’re familiar with Distributed Denial of Services (DDoS) attacks, you probably think of them as malicious acts used to squelch free speech and silence opposition.

But the first denial of service attacks started in the early 1990s as an act of civil disobedience, according to Dmitri Vitaliev, co-founder and director of eQualit.ie, a Canadian-based nonprofit tech support organization.

Some of the earliest DDoS attacks were conducted by organizations like the Zapatistas in Mexico who sought attention and retaliation, not censorship, he added.

Today, DDoS attacks are more frequently used for cyberbullying, censorship, or to defend commercial interests. A significant number of DDoS attacks happen because private companies want take down their competitor’s websites, he said.

Vitaliev has been studying DDoS attacks for more than five years and is working hard to protect journalists, activists, and other socially-minded organizations through his Deflect service.

Private companies often pay thousands of dollars a month for hosting with DDoS protection, but Vitaliev understands that journalists and NGOs can’t afford such services.

In addition to DDoS protection, eQualit.ie offers free web hosting for journalists and others who meet their criteria. Their eQPress hosting service provides premium web hosting as well as technical support so that “site owners can concentrate on their missions, while leaving the complex technical details to specialists,” he said. Vitaliev’s mission is to support free speech and help journalists and activists in their fight to spread the truth.

Most hosting companies, when hit with a DMCA takedown notice, elect to pre-emptively kill the site. In contrast, eQualit.ie takes time to analyze each complaint...

As new threats have emerged, eQPress has added new types of protection, including services to help thwart digital surveillance and other kinds of hacking.

In addition to DDoS protection, Vitaliev’s nonprofit, eQualit.ie, offers help with DMCA takedown notices, one of the newer and more devious ways of taking down a website.

A DMCA Takedown Notice alerts a hosting service that a website may be violating someone’s copyright. The laws around DMCA Takedown Notices were developed primarily in response to complaints from the music and movie industries because of widespread piracy. They were designed to make it easy for anyone from Hollywood to Bollywood to identify piracy sites and have them taken down quickly, before a stolen song or movie can spread all over the web and cost them sales.

However, because of the way the law is written, anyone can accuse a site of copyright violation, and the web host is obligated to take down the site immediately, even without evidence of a violation.

Unfortunately, a growing number of governments and private individuals who seek to shut down journalists and activists have learned that filing DMCA notices is a quick and powerful way to silence web publishers (at least temporarily). Most hosting companies, when hit with a DMCA notice, elect to pre-emptively kill the site listed in the notice, rather than risk the possibility of incurring legal penalties.

Unlike commercial services, which are quick to take down sites when they get DMCA notices, and sometimes shut down sites that get hit with DDoS attacks, eQualit.ie has a, “We go down with you policy.”

In contrast, eQualit.ie takes time to analyze each DMCA notice to decide whether it’s a legitimate complaint, Vitaliev said. More often than not, the complaints are completely without merit. In one case, he noted a complaint referenced an image of a renaissance painting that was not even protected by copyright – and not even on the news site that was cited in the complaint.

Unlike commercial services, which are quick to take down sites when they get DMCA notices, and sometimes shut down sites that get hit with DDoS attacks, eQualit.ie has a, “We go down with you policy.”

“We never sacrifice one for the good of the many,” Vitaliev said. “Basically, we have a way to segment our network, so if one website is attracting too much traffic … we separate everyone else from them and then put as many resources as we can into that network. It’s one of the reasons why Deflect is so effective."

By design, this distributed network makes it difficult for outsiders to see where a website is hosted when it is under their protection, he said. “We are built for this kind of scenario.”

Contact eQualit.ie about using their free services here.

Janine Warner is the founder and executive director of SembraMedia, an organization dedicated to improving the quality of news content available in Spanish. She is an expert at helping digital media entrepreneurs implement sustainable business practices and generate new sources of revenue online. Learn more about her work as an ICFJ Knight Fellow here.

Image cc-licensed by Google Images via Pixabay.

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