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In June, I was the opening speaker for the inaugural HostCamp in Berlin, which was a side event for the larger WordCamp Europe.
My topic presentation and topic was Ethics in WordPress Hosting. It was a topic the event organizer, Jonathan Wold, and I talked about at length. The goal was to start a discussion about ethical issues facing the industry, what sort of behavior and policies people have and how to address them.
The event was by invitation and I cannot discuss what others shared because that was in private. My goal was to convince web hosting company executives that ethics matter, not just for the sake of being ethical. I wanted to show how even perceived unethical behavior could financially harm companies today with social media. So please act properly, it's in your best financial interest. One of the case studies is Digital Ocean which I wrote about and inspired the talk.
I wrote The Case for Regulatory Capture at ICANN last week and published it because I worried ICANN would approve the proposed .ORG contract at their ICANN65 Meeting in Marrakesh which started the same day I published the article. It wasn't passed during the meeting, but last night ICANN announced it signed a new agreement on the .ORG contract.
ICANN, which oversees the domain name system, was in talks with Public Interest Registry (PIR), a non profit owned by The Internet Society (ISOC), about renewing PIR's contract to manage the .ORG domain name registry. The majority of non profit's use the .ORG space to represent themselves online and PIR was given this monopoly by ICANN. PIR doesn't even manage the registry themselves, but outsources (via bid) to Afilias, a registry services provider. PIR's profits all directly go to ISOC. It's a monopoly designed to tax non profits for the benefit of ISOC. ICANN's proposed contract wanted to remove the provision that allowed PIR to increase their prices 10% per year and make it unlimited or uncapped, giving PIR the freedom to charge as much as they want. Non profits, charities, internet users as a whole were nearly universally against this change.
Back to ICANN's Mission
"ICANN's scope is to coordinate the development and implementation of policies: That are developed through a bottom-up consensus-based multistakeholder process and designed to ensure the stable and secure operation of the Internet's unique names systems."
Except, that's not what happened. Here's a timeline of what actually happened.
March 18, 2019
ICANN and PIR negotiated a contract behind closed doors and called for comments on a proposed renewal contract.
The public submitted its comments.
June 3, 2019
ICANN staff created a report summarizing the comments and said "ICANN org will consider the public comments received and, in consultation with the ICANN Board of Directors, make a decision regarding the proposed registry agreement."
June 30, 2019
ICANN approves proposed contract with no changes. Only a date was added, Cyrus Namazi got a promotion and someone spelled Jonathon's name wrong (compare).
The 96 page contract is identical from when it was proposed to signed. The multi stakeholders and bottom up process that is supposed to govern ICANN policy? Ignored.
The public outcry was nearly universally against this change. They weren't listened to at all.
Did ICANN's board vote on the proposed contract after being briefed about the public outcry? As of writing, I couldn't find any evidence in ICANN's board activity page. No agenda, no minutes, no resolutions, no briefing material, no preliminary report. Did ICANN staff simply push through this contract without a board vote? Either outcome is deeply disturbing and potentially violates the ICANN bylaws/mission.
ICANN Needs Oversight
ICANN as an organization has failed to live up to its mission. Greg Thomas wrote a response to my original article and while we may differ on some beliefs, his conclusion was,
"By all appearances, it hasn't taken long, in the absence of U.S. Government oversight, for rot to set in at the root. If the community is going to acquiesce to its own dismissal — if corruption is to become normalized at ICANN and in DNS governance — then, perhaps it's time to start looking towards the heavens."
It's hard to say ICANN doesn't appear to be a captured organization. It's abdicated its responsibility to govern, "ICANN must operate in a manner consistent with these Bylaws for the benefit of the Internet community as a whole."
Yesterday, ICANN failed the internet community as a whole. It sold them out and the best reassurance is 'trust us' from the organization they just gave the freedom to tax non profits using .ORG domains as much as they desire.
The foxes are watching the hen house now and ICANN willfully ignored the internet community and made this happen.
I am speaking at HostCamp (side event to WordCamp Europe) in a couple weeks on the topic of Ethics in WordPress Hosting. I'm not really sure WordPress hosting has any specific differences from web hosting in general when talking about ethics. But ethical behavior in the web hosting space is something I talk about a lot. I also aggressively call out people/companies behaving unethically on this blog in the web hosting space.    
As I was writing a response to a short interview to introduce the topic, I tried to think about a relevant example of why ethics matter in web hosting. A very recent event jumped to mind, someone tweeting that Digital Ocean [Reviews] shut down their company.
This tweet was sent by @w3Nicolas.
The stats are staggering:
- 2,581 Reweets
- 4,574 Likes
- 1,333 Upvotes / 598 Comments on HackerNews
- 77 Upvotes / 78 Comments on Reddit r/webhosting
- 125 Upvotes / 93 Comments on Reddit r/webdev.
- Coverage on The Register.
That's only in the communities I participate in, I was sent the link by multiple people in other groups as well. I'm sure tens of thousands of people, if not more, read about this incident.
This is a view into what that tweet did to Digital Ocean's data here on Review Signal (I track Twitter data and sentiment about web hosting companies for the unfamiliar). I pulled the past 30 days of Digital Ocean information.
The tweet was sent on May 31, the 4th data point. We see an enormous jump in tweet volume. The preceding days had an average of 248 tweets per day. May 31 had 2000 and June 1 had 2489 tweets, nearly 10X the normal volume for two days. By June 4, we're down to 274 tweets, a normal volume. The internet outrage machine was out in force and spreading the word.
Digital Ocean responded on Twitter with Moisey Uretsky, a cofounder, intervening to escalate and resolve the issue. Digital Ocean also released a post-mortem on June 4 about what happened as promised (Nice to see a company keep their word and admit mistakes).
What does this have to do with Ethics?
Why did I even write this story and what does it have to do with ethics? The question I was trying to answer when I started thinking about this incident and digging into the data is "Why should hosting companies and those who do business with them care about ethics?"
A lot of developers and entrepreneurs read a story about a guy who was shutdown without warning, and then locked out seemingly permanently without being treated fairly. It strikes a chord with people when someone is being treated wrongly/badly with no explanation, especially when it's their livelihood that is impacted. It violates a fundamental moral code of fairness and trust.
The impact for a perceived ethical violation in this case was tens of thousands of people reading a negative story. It generated heated discussions and some very negative comments.
My data showed a tremendous increase in negative messages with the ratio dropping to 34% (Digital Ocean has historically over 70% positive messages).
They were quick to jump into some of the communities and address the issue. The post-mortem on Twitter received 225 Likes and 62 Retweets. That's 2.4% the amount of retweets and 4.9% the Likes. The impact of addressing the issue and trying to improve made a tiny fraction of the impact.
I will be clear here, I don't think Digital Ocean acted maliciously or unethically (intentionally). It sounds like a combination of automated system and a couple human mistakes lead to a very bad outcome for a customer that attracted a lot of attention. The way it was portrayed evoked feelings of an ethical violation of fairness and trust.
Digital Ocean's post-mortem's conclusion:
We wanted to share the specific details around this incident as accurately and quickly as possible to give the community insight into what happened and how we handled it. We recognize the impact this had on a customer, and how this represented a breach of trust for the community, and for that we are deeply sorry. We have a number of takeaways to improve the technical, process, and people missteps that led to this failure. The entire team at DigitalOcean values and remains committed to the global community of developers.
So when companies think about how they should behave, I want to use this example as an argument that people do care about companies behaving ethically and awareness of their behavior can quickly be amplified when a person's story resonates.
The benchmarks are available here
The benchmarks are available here.
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Review Signal launched on September 25, 2012. TechCrunch wrote Web Hosting Reviews are a Cesspool. Review Signal Wants to Fix That. It was a huge moment because it was roughly two years of development and one Master's thesis worth of effort. The author wrote a pretty accurate assessment of the state of web hosting reviews and the challenges facing Review Signal. Well, Review Signal has managed to last. It added Amazon AWS along with a bunch of other hosting companies. It has kept its independence and only made one algorithm update. The goal of expansion beyond hosting hasn't happened. But Review Signal has managed to become the defacto number one source for WordPress Hosting Reviews for anyone who cares about performance with our annual WordPress Hosting Performance Benchmarks.
Looking at the past five years, I've wondered what sort of impact Review Signal has made. One of the saddest impacts has been doing post-mortem write ups about once great companies. The original was The Rise and Fall of A Small Orange. It was a very personal analysis because they were a company that was ranked #1 on Review Signal when it launched. I had to personally talk the CEO into creating an affiliate program specifically for Review Signal because he was against web hosting review sites. He was against them for the same reason I was, because they were just pay-to-play junk masquerading as 'reviews.' I had to convince him Review Signal was different and if something different and honest were going to survive financially, I had to at least make a little money from referrals or I couldn't afford to continue to operate. Ultimately, based on the numbers I saw, it's possible Review Signal could have generated more than 10% of their business which saw them grow until they were acquired by Endurance International Group (EIG) and fall off a cliff in terms of service. Sadly, it wasn't the only company to follow this story, The Sinking of Site5 was the follow up.
The effort for honest reviews spawned one site which copied the same idea of using Twitter data to power it. They didn't do affiliate links and ultimately sold out to a less than savory web hosting review site which taunts some EIG brands near the top of its rankings. That was another unfortunate post mortem I had to write.
I guess not. It's still just another Tuesday when someone insults what it should mean to run a review site.
But to end on a positive note, I'm quite proud Review Signal has managed to stick around. I've disclosed a lot about it this year on a big interview on Indie Hackers. It may not have changed the world but it has definitely helped thousands of people make more informed and hopefully better decisions in a market plagued with lies. So for, I am proud and here's to the next five years - I hope Review Signal helps more people and makes a bigger impact on the industry as a whole.
Today's post features Rose Hosting. Who I refuse to link to because their whole business model seems to involve comment spamming this blog and other sources of information. What started with a simple spam comment sent me down a rabbit hole I wasn't prepared for and shed light on a fairly large spam operation that spanned multiple sites, but my primary focus became Quora with a secondary focus on the web hosting review sites also being manipulated.
Visualization of Rose Hosting Quora Spam Network. An interactive version is available at the end of the article.
It started with a simple spam comment.
The poster tries to compliment the post and then drops in a RoseHosting mention and praises it.
But wait, there's an IP address! Looks like they made a mistake this time.
So Miami Cloud Hosting is who owns the IP space that this comment came from. Let's see what comes up when I ping rosehosting.com
If you go to that IP, rosehosting.com shows up. So it's correct. Also if you look at their DNS:
So we're 12 IPs away on that A record. Let's check out that IP that actually responded on ARIN.
Bingo. Same Miami Cloud Hosting.
So fakeish looking name, an email with zero google search results and coming from the same IP space on a the cloud hosting provider that hosts RoseHosting. Pretty damning, but unsurprising to see some astroturfing, many of the bigger players just rely on affiliates to do it for them and look the other way.
But I'm not one to accept shitty behavior in this business and just look the other way.
Let's see how many more I can dig up. I recognize the Rose Hosting name and know they've spammed me in the past.
The pattern seems to be emails with nothing associated with them on google. There is a protected twitter account with the same username as Pablo, but that's about it.
Mike uses HideMyAss, a VPN service designed to hide identities. VPNs/anonymity have a lot of value, they also happen to be abused by spammers a lot. This pattern looks nefarious.
Jean's comment follows the original Oscar comment's template: compliment, rose host spam, compliment.
They all added in HTML with the rel="nofollow" because they probably realized Google can easily see comment spam and cracked down on it. Putting a nofollow link is supposed to preserve your SEO value by not associating it as a spam link (because it's telling Google not to follow it). Why are these supposed customers adding SEO tactics to their comments and trying to hide their identities?
The Boss Man
I also got this email from Bob, who I assume is the owner based on what's listed publicly and the interviews he's done on at least one other review site which I don't trust a bit, and won't link to either.
But it's all class, I want to get listed and pay a lot.
So at best they are a 'subtle' please promote me for money kind of web hosting company (which almost every host will do). At worst, they are comment spamming and potentially astroturfing/sockpuppeting web host.
Searching For More
I searched WebHostingTalk, the largest web hosting forum that has run forever and has over 9 million posts.
Just about everyone is talked about here. They have a company account that constantly posts ads. But how is it that in 14 years there are only 2 reviews and most of the threads are asking 'who?' Yet somehow, my blog is getting hordes of accounts recommending them. Another red flag.
Did they learn their lesson on WHT when an account got questioned about sounding like a shill? So the largest forum with 9,000,000 posts has basically nothing about them.
I kept searching and stumbled upon this gem on Twitter
.@RoseHosting Stop spamming my website with your tutorials; leaving comments about my tutorials and then linking to your website's tutorial.
— Brandon Himpfen (@BrandonHimpfen) August 30, 2015
I sense a pattern. Those crazy customers of ours who link to git and tomcat installation tutorials. Carl had a bit of a spamming spree according to Google.
Let's keep digging.
Sockpuppets and Patterns
Looks like I found Jean Debushy!
And again. Deep linking their ubuntu VPS on an ubuntu tutorial too, nice SEO tactic.
It's not a good spam campaign without hitting Quora!
So this name exists solely to promote RoseHosting and it all seemed to happen in October 2015. That's suspicious to say the least.
At this point it became clear that the sockpuppeting is more organized than I originally thought.
I started to search the other names I had been spammed from and easily found more bad behavior.
Oscar is alive and well it seems on Disqus. and DiscoverCloud.
The Smoking Gun
Quora was the gold mine for uncovering this spam network. Once I found a couple accounts on Quora, I could go through their history and see who upvoted their posts. It would be practical if you were running a spam network to have many accounts upvoting one another to give yourself more visibility. More upvotes, more traffic, easier for me to track it all down.
I discovered 51 accounts connected to RoseHosting and mapped out how they connected to one another. I took those same names and searched for their re-use across other sites. 10 showed up on Serchen, 3 on HostReview, 6 on DiscoverCloud, 6 on HostAdvice, 3 on TrustPilot, 1 on Reviews.co.uk - all industry review sites being manipulated by these same spam accounts. I also discovered 11 more accounts connected to various review sites and comment spam.
Rose Hosting Quora Spam Network
This graph charts the connections (upvotes) of RoseHosting associated Quora accounts. If you hover over a name it links to the Quora details and any other related content spamming like review sites.
I tried for months to reach out to Quora and have never heard a word from them. I did notice when I last checked (March 28, 2017) that at least some of the accounts have been banned. Maybe someone actually read my email and just didn't have the time to respond.
I have reached out to the web hosting review sites and will update as I hear back from them. The only company that did respond and acknowledged the issue was HostAdvice (not to be confused with HostingAdvice which steals Review Signal content to mislead its visitors).
Full Data Table Available on Google Docs
Thanks RoseHosting for having the decency to make sure you spammed this article as well. I am guessing your spammers don't understand irony. Or possibly the English language.
A new comment on the post "Uncovering the Rose Hosting Spam Network on Quora" is waiting for your approval
2017/03/31/uncovering-the- rose-hosting-spam-network-on- quora/
Author: Merritt George (IP: 18.104.22.168, cpe-75-86-176-9.wi.res.rr.com)
That's a great article! There sure are interesting parts of web hosting that people don't know about.
So hey I wanted to know if you do reviews on new sites? I was looking around and noticed that my current webhost, <a href="https://www.rosehosting.
com/" rel="nofollow">Rose Hosting</a> wasn't listed and that's a shame! In a sea of companies with no scruples, they've stood out to me as a solid company that doesn't resort to shady tactics, delivers quality support, and has great uptime.
Would love to see a benchmark!
Bonus: Fake Review Screenshots