Claiming their Web sites were consuming too much of its servers' resources or contained prohibited items, Kansas City, Mo.-based CommuniTech.Net told customers earlier this month it would delete their accounts within three days if they did not upgrade them. While the upgraded accounts start at $223 a month, many people were paying just $22.95 a month for their accounts prior to the notice.
"Due to the fact that your Web site is dramatically inflating our CPU usage (and is subsequently violating our Terms of Service), we are requesting that you move to a dedicated hosting environment," a CommuniTech sales representative said in an email to one customer. "If this solution doesn't suit your needs, I'll be happy to refund your remaining payments to you, but must insist that you move to a new hosting company. Your site will be cancelled unless you've committed to purchasing a dedicated server."
Lydia Leong, an analyst who covers Internet service providers for Gartner's Dataquest division, called the email "unusual," adding that it seemed as if CommuniTech was deliberately trying to be rude to its customers.
"Good Web hosting firms wouldn't do this to their customers," Leong said. "It doesn't seem like a strategy designed to retain customers."
Indeed, many CommuniTech customers have packed their virtual bags and moved their sites to new Web hosting firms.
"I was pretty disappointed with the way they handled the whole thing," said Joe Schwartz, a software engineer in Troy, N.Y., who runs Joyrides.com, a Web site for roller-coaster enthusiasts. "They gave us very little notice, and they were not honest and forthcoming about the reasons that they were shutting us down."
Ryan Elledge, director of operations at CommuniTech, said the company's recent move caused an "ugly situation" with some customers, but said server loads have decreased significantly since the company closed the problem accounts. "We don't like turning away business," Elledge said. "But the end result is a substantial decrease in problems and better service for 99 percent of our clients."
Elledge said about 20 CommuniTech customers actually upgraded their accounts.
Web hosting companies provide shelf space, Internet connections and often server space for both commercial and noncommercial Web sites. While Net giants such as Yahoo and eBay pay companies such as Exodus to host their own customized servers, other, smaller Web outfits simply rent space on hosting companies' computers.
CommuniTech provides Web hosting on both virtual and dedicated servers. Sites on virtual servers--the ones targeted by the notices--cost far less, but must share server resources with other Web sites. Web sites on dedicated servers do not have to share processing power or RAM, but their operators have to pay more for the extra computing power.
CommuniTech promises "unlimited" bandwidth to its Web site customers, meaning that their Web sites can have an unlimited number of hits or page views each month. In its "quality of service" agreement, the company limits how much processing time or RAM each Web site can use on its servers but does not quantify those limits. CommuniTech also restricts customers from posting some material on their Web sites, including pornography.
Many of the company's customers resell discounted CommuniTech accounts to other Web hosts.
Customers head to the boards
In the wake of receiving notices from CommuniTech, affected customers flooded the company's message boards with complaints. Many questioned the company's actions and wondered why they had been targeted.
"CommuniTech is lying, trying to move high-bandwidth sites to dedicated servers to make a buck," one customer wrote.
Others accused the company of changing its terms of service to cancel accounts. CommuniTech's "acceptable use policy," posted on its Web site, prohibits "Websites which primarily promote Pok?mon, professional wrestling, photo archives, software distribution and gaming." But the contract that customers sign is far less specific and seemingly contradictory, banning only the "distribution of executable programs, archive files or other nonvisual file types."
"They have to contact all their clients before they change their terms of service," said Jeroen Schalling, a Netherlands native who ran a Spice Girls fan page on his CommuniTech site. "Never has anyone received a confirmation about a change of terms."
Last August, Ford sued CommuniTech customer Robert Lane, accusing him of trademark and copyright infringement and of violating its trade secrets in connection with some confidential documents he published on his Web site. The automotive giant also threatened legal action against CommuniTech as the Web site's host but has not named the company as a defendant.
CommuniTech president Gabriel Murphy called the lawsuit a "turning point" for the company. In the wake of it, the company has moved to restrict copyrighted materials from appearing on sites, even when the Web site operator may be using them legally.
"We don't have the time or the manpower to ask whether they have the right to use these materials," Murphy said.
CommuniTech's Elledge said the company's terms of service have not changed since last September, although the company has been lax in enforcing the rules in recent months. The company had sent previous notices to many of the customers targeted this month, Elledge said, alerting them that their sites were affecting the company's system resources. And others affected were clearly in violation of the company's rules, including some 40 sites that hosted pornographic images, he said.
However, Elledge said many of the affected sites were conducting legitimate business and that the company does not have clearly marked lines denoting how much system resources a customer can use.
"Is there a way for the end user to absolutely know for certain? Probably not," he said.
At least some of the sites were given some leeway, Elledge said. The company reopened two accounts that it was prepared to cancel and gave extensions to some who requested more time to transfer their sites to other Web hosting companies.
One CommuniTech customer said she was not given previous notice or leeway by the company. The customer, who asked to remain anonymous, designs Web sites that she hosts on CommuniTech.
After receiving a notice that CommuniTech would close one of her accounts if she did not upgrade it, the Mississippi-based Web designer said she tried to contact the company to find out whether she could fix the problem. But she said the company never responded to her three email messages and denied her request to speak to a manager.
The designer said she has since moved the problem account to another Web hosting service and plans to move all the rest of the accounts she hosts on CommuniTech.
"I was very aggravated; I was mad," the customer said. "They wouldn't give us an opportunity to correct the situation.
"They've always been good to work with up to this point. This just came out of nowhere."