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Six years review of NearlyFreeSpeech.net hosting

Around six years ago I decided to create a controversial website that was legal under US law but it was sure to attract complaints and run afoul of most hosting companies terms and conditions, with plenty of money this is not a huge a problem, you can rent a dedicated server and host whatever you like, the small guy with a small budget for a small site only has shared hosting to go to.

I carried out a thorough free speech shared hosting research and only found two companies fitting for my content, NearlyFreeSpeech and CrisisHost, after an initial bad experience with CrisisHost due to continuous server downtime, I moved my site to NearlyFreeSpeech, another US based company suitable for small sites. NearlyFreeSpeech has a unique in-house developed hosting control panel divided into tabs, not overtly complicated but with many less features than cPanel or Plesk, nevertheless adequate for a small site, only requiring a bit more of work setting up a database, email or domain canonical name than it would require with an industry standard hosting panel.

Static HTML sites are easy to set up in NearlyFreeSpeech, simply upload the files with SFTP and it’s done, if you want a WordPress blog or MediaWiki with a SQL database you will have to roll up your sleeves and spend a few hours reading the documentation, people who has never managed a website will likely find it confusing seeing terms like log automatic rotation, log archival compression, DNS setup or choosing if you want to activate PHP, the host hasn’t got any one-click installer like cPanel. On the positive side after everything has been configured you are not likely to ever have to do it again, it is a one off time investment and if NearlyFreeSpeech exceeds at something that is in documentation, their help pages are very detailed and clear.

NearlyFreeSpeech control panel
NearlyFreeSpeech control panel

The pricing structure is something I did not like, it is abruptly complicated, there isn’t a flat rate, you have to pay tiny amounts for each one of the priced at under a cent resources you use, like bandwidth, storage space, DNS, number of SQL databases, activating PHP, email forwarding and others, the money is discounted daily from your prepaid account.

If you require support this has to be paid for separately buying credits that give you a determinate amount of tickets, I am fairly experienced with websites and I did not have to use NearlyFreeSpeech paid support, a free alternative is to use the active members only forum where you can get advice from other customers, you can only see this forum after signing up for an account, the forum is not indexed by search engines, I found it to be very helpful and staff also posts there often to help you out. Another nice feature is a members only poll where people can vote what new component they would like to see implemented next and it will be taken into consideration by staff depending on how many votes there are and how easy it is to do it. NearlyFreeSpeech can register your domain with whois privacy protection but I considered it best to use a domain registrar separated from the hosting account in case anything happens with one of them, this would later turn out to be a very wise decision.

My site had 4.000 daily visitors, consuming 40GB monthly bandwidth, I was afraid that given that NearlyFreeSpeech charges accounts per consumed bandwidth and you need to prepay it in advance, free speech enemies could bombard the site with an automatic crawler like HTTrack and ansorb all of my bandwidth running me out of funds but this never happened. I would approximately spend around $90 a year on the site, working out at $7.5/month, an average price I think, you can pay with a credit card, Paypal or US check mailed in.

I had a problem with the site the first year when an anonymous person filled in a DMCA complaint against one of my articles quoting him, NearlyFreeSpeech support emailed me giving me the choice of taking the article down or counter the DMCA, to avoid problems and wasting time I decided to pull down that specific post, it was the only time I ever had a ticket opened and it happened the first year.

NearlyFreeSpeech asks for my passport

After six trouble free years of hosting with NearlyFreeSpeech with no server down time I can remember of, the company sent me an email out of the blue informing me that my membership had been selected for supplemental ID verification and asking me to provide them with a copy of a government-issued ID such as a passport and proof of address matching the information I had registered in my account. I was not happy that after so long of hosting with NearlyFreeSpeech and causing no problems they would now come to me with this threatening to close down my account if I did not comply.

In 48 hours I received a second message telling me that I had been “fined” (NearlyFreeSpeeh discounted $1 from my account) for not replying and threatened to increase the penalty amount until I run out of funds if I did not get in touch with them. After a back and forward ticket exchange with support it became clear that they would not back down from their request (ticket 63146) that I send in a copy of a government ID and bill matching the account address, NearlyFreeSpeech kept going on about their terms and conditions saying that accurate registration information had to be provided or I would be violating their terms and conditions and the account terminated. At this point I referred to their refund policy saying that I could contact them at any time to close the account and ask for any left credit to be paid back, to be precise, I had $55 left in my account, NearlyFreeSpeech refused me a refund saying that I had broken their terms and conditions and I could only get a refund if I provided them with a copy of a government ID and matching address.

NearlyFreeSpeech bandwidth usage
NearlyFreeSpeech bandwidth usage

I have to give it to Jeff from support that he went the extra mile explaining me the problem in detail and offering me the choice to donate the money to any website hosted with NearlyFreeSpeech or to the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, saying that they had no interest in getting paid for services not provided. My dispute here was that they could not accuse someone of providing false information when they had no evidence other than realising six years after initial registration, the account address belonged to a homeless shelter, which in itself does not mean I provided a false address since that is where I lived, so, without any corroboration of me breaching NearlyFreeSpeech terms and conditions, they had already considered me guilty, faced with the hard reality of the hosting company not backing off, I instructed them to donate the money to someone else and close down my account for good.

If you wonder why I refused to provide NearlyFreeSpeech with a copy of my passport and a bill with a matching address is because as anyone who runs a controversial website knows, your life can be at risk if that information leaks on the Internet and it is troubling that a free speech hosting company can have such stringent identity measures in place, specially given the length of time one has been a customer, NearlyFreeSpeech had six years of Paypal payments on record, that alone was more than enough to track me down if I there was the need, not that it is their responsibility to track me down anyway.

Be warned if you host with NearlyFreeSpeech, they can ask for your passport and utility bill with your address at any time they like for a random identity check.I am now hosting my site with PRQ in Sweden, slightly more expensive but committed to free speech hosting, and they allow anonymous Bitcoin payments.

Alternatively see this list of free speech hosting companies

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