Are web hosting decisions now settling elections?

The humble web server seems to have been cropping up in an increasing number of political controversies of late. Let’s investigate a little further…

Posted on 05 May 2017 -
Tibus BY Tibus

A lot of the content on our blog tries to place the process of choosing web hosting in the context of the effects it can have on the performance, profitability and security of an organisation in order to illustrate the importance of giving the decision due consideration so that our readers end up with a good web host and are well informed about which web hosting types are suited to their requirements.

But perhaps the best illustration yet of precisely how important a decision on web hosting arrangements is comes from last year’s US presidential election. Are our prospective leaders’ choices of digital infrastructure now directly impacting who governs us?

Clinton's email server

This week the respected statistics website EightThirtyFive published an article in which it claims the decisive factor in Donald Trump beating Hillary Clinton to the White House was probably the letter sent by FBI director James Comey to Congress on October 28, 2016. The subject of that letter was emails on Clinton’s controversial private email server that had been the subject of a previous investigation and which, Comey’s letter detailed, had now turned up “emails that appear to be pertinent to the investigation”. Although Comey confirmed two days before the election that the emails had not provided the investigation with anything new, the damage was probably already done.

EightThirtyFive’s founder and editor-in-chief Nate Silver says that while Comey’s letter about Clinton’s home-brew hosting setup might not have been the most important factor in her election defeat, it is the influential factor of which we can be most certain. Silver says the letter “had a fairly large and measurable impact” on the outcome of the election, pointing out that Clinton’s 5.9 percentage points in FiveThirtyEight’s popular vote projection at 12.01am on the day theletter was published had crumbled to just 2.9 percentage points a week later.

Russia hack


And what if Comey’s letter about the email server was not the decisive factor? Well, look elsewhere and there is still a strong web hosting presence in many of the stories and theories surrounding Trump’s election. 

The links between the Trump camp and Russia have been the subject of a great deal of coverage since he took office. One of the key roles played by the Russians in the election is their hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s email and computer systems. They had access to these for several months in the run-up to the election and were able to provide a cache of emails from the hacked account of Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta to WikiLeaks.

Although the hack itself was the result of a simple phishing scam rather than anything more sophisticated, The Guardian’s report details how a lax approach to cybersecurity by both the DNC and the FBI allowed the hackers to have free run of the servers for so long.

Domain renewals

Even as far back as the presidential primaries in February 2016, web hosting management was helping Trump towards his unlikely victory. Republican rival Jeb Bush fell victim to an ambush by the man who would ultimately beat him to the nomination when he allowed his website domain to expire. Trump’s camp pounced, registered the domain for themselves and redirected traffic from Bush’s website to the Trump campaign site.

Big data

In both the US presidential election and the EU referendum, the use of big data were key factors. The Trump campaign and leave.EU both worked with Cambridge Analytica, a company that promises to use data to change behaviour. Given the success of both campaigns, big data is likely to be increasingly prominent in forthcoming elections. With big data comes a need to store all that data safely and legally. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office launched an investigation into Cambridge Analytica’s role in the Brexit vote to establish whether the data protection rights of UK citizens were breached in collecting the data in question.

With the EU’s new General Data Protection Regulation coming into effect from May 2018, pollsters, political campaigns and their web hosts will have to take measures to ensure they comply with regulations relating to the collection and storing of EU citizens’ personal data - by companies operating both inside and outside the EU - in order to stay on the right side of the law.

A pattern

All of that seems to point to a pattern of web hosting influencing elections. As we said at the outset of this article, hosting and servers seem to be a regular theme in recent elections, underpinning an array of key moments and controversies during recent campaigns. 

There is no single technology or precautionary measure that will keep politicians and their campaign teams out of trouble (though it is safe to assume that no high-profile politician will go down the route of having a private email server at home again any time in the foreseeable future); rather, there is a broader need for all aspects of web hosting and digital infrastructure to be given the same level of care, financial backing and specialist oversight that would be given to more traditional aspects of political campaigning.

Have we missed an example of a web server being caught up in an election controversy? Let us know below.


We had scarcely had time to publish this article before another very high-profile example emerged. On the evening of Friday, May 5, just two days before the French presidential election, a huge trove of files obtained from candidate Emmanuel Macron's campaign appeared online. A US cyber intelligence firm told Reuters that an initial review of the data suggested the Macron hack may have been the work of Russian military intelligence.

On this occasion, the politically-motivated hack did not have what appeared to be the intended effect because Macron defeated far-right candidate Marine Le Pen to win the election. With a candidate slightly more palatable than Le Pen standing to benefit and a smaller gap in the polls to be closed, it might have been different.

It serves as another case of hackers working in tandem with political campaigns they support in an effort to undermine opponents. It is also another case of the contents of a server being laid bare before the electorate as they prepare to cast their votes.