Anonymous Web Hosting

Privacy and anonymity aren't synonyms when you pay for services on the web

Cloaked man using laptop

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There's a significant difference between private web hosting and anonymous web hosting — and most people cannot easily obtain the latter.

Private Hosting

A private hosting agreement essentially shields the identity of a web host's consumer from public discovery. In a sense, most paid hosting services are functionally private insofar as the host does not publish consumer lists. The host may, however, share consumer lists with trade partners.

Privacy isn't guaranteed, but it's typically hard to get at the identity of a site owner, through a paid hosting service, except in cases of actual or alleged criminal activity. Most reputable sites protect the privacy of their clients from routine public inspection, although they'll also generally cooperate in full with search warrants and subpoenas.

Surfacing Owner Names

Most site owners aren't publicly exposed by their hosting company — they're exposed through the Domain Name System. DNS registrars are required to collect information about the owner of a domain name: typically the name, address, email address and phone number of the administrative and technical contacts.

This information is publicly posted in the DNS system and is easily accessed through simple queries.

Some registrars offer a special paid service, called private hosting or something similar, that still collects the required information, but suppresses it in DNS listings. In essence, the requirement is satisfied by the personal contact information is not released.

For most people, using a private DNS listing is sufficient for privacy in all but the most extreme of cases.

True Hosting Anonymity

It's difficult to obtain true anonymity for one simple reason: Almost all hosting providers offer their services for a fee, and that fee requires payment in credit cards or PayPal payments. Because banks in the United States are required by "know your customer" laws to positively identify account holders, providing pseudonymous data to a reseller cannot overcome the fact that your credit card has your name on it. (Even reloadable debit gift cards often require registration for online transactions.)

To host without identity, you'll need to:

  • Find a host that offers free services (rare).
  • Find a host that accepts cryptocurrency, like bitcoin, as compensation (often sketchy, and a malware risk).
  • Find a host operating outside of the United States, and for which the U.S. lacks treaty authority to obtain financial records.

One caveat about those overseas hosts that accept bitcoin: They're often run by scammers themselves, with malware and other risks inherent in the situation. And even if you're lucky enough to find an overseas bitcoin-accepting host, it's probably safe to assume that law-enforcement and anti-terrorism authorities also know about those hosts and watch them with special care.

Other strategies, including hiding behind a fictitious corporate name, still fail under banking "know your customer" laws. If you need anonymity because you intend to break the law, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and state-level law-enforcement officials can subpoena your payment information.

And even if you do manage to find a host that will give you secure, risk-free space — your IP address will likely give you away unless you're a fanatic about using a Virtual Private Network, and your VPN isn't willing to answer subpoenas or search warrants.

The Bottom Line

DNS privacy, when you secure your domain name, is generally a strong enough layer of protection for most people.