What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You: Rogue Sites and Online Risk

Matthew Johnson

For parents of teens and tweens, the Internet can sometimes seem like nothing more than an ever-expanding list of websites to keep up on: Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat and so on, with new ones appearing every few months. While the safety risks associated with these mainstream sites are often exaggerated – and it’s more effective to build broader critical thinking skills than to focus on the particulars of kids’ latest favourite sites – there are some websites that present very real and specific risks and that parents are much less likely to know about. These are the so-called “rogue websites” that offer unapproved access to copyrighted content such as music, movies and video games.

While parents may have heard of the most famous of these sites, the Pirate Bay, there are many more that are less well-known. These sites fall into three main categories: “file lockers” which actually host copyright-infringing content, “link sites” which collect links to the content, and sites that allow users to search for the content.  Across all areas of the global internet, it is estimated that 24% of traffic (not including pornography) is infringing. [1]

There are a number of reasons for parents to be concerned about rogue sites. The first is obvious: downloading or streaming video from them is wrong, since it’s done without the consent of the people who created it or own it. Almost all of these sites are owned and operated for profit, and recent changes to Canada’s copyright laws make it clear that sites that wilfully and knowingly enable online infringement are illegal and not welcome in Canada.  As well, there’s no guarantee that what you’re downloading from one of these sites is what it claims to be, which makes them unsafe for consumers.  They are often used to steal personal information such as e-mail addresses and passwords.  Internet security experts warn that these sites can severely infect computers and devices, and render the user vulnerable to spam, viruses, malware or phishing attacks.

Most of these sites earn their revenue through advertising, with others supplementing their advertising income by offering premium subscription accounts designed to offer users faster access.  Recent research shows that rogue sites pose serious risks related to advertising, which are a “clear and present danger to their users, who are often children.” The study The Prevalence of High-Risk and Mainstream Advertisements Targeting Canadians on Rogue Websites looked at 5,000 websites that had been reported for copyright infringement under the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act. [2] Each of these sites was then accessed from a Canadian IP address (to see the types of advertisements that came up for Canadian users) and the ads were analyzed.

The study’s findings were striking: almost nine in ten of the ads displayed on these sites were categorized as being “High Risk” because they promoted “goods or services which fall outside the legitimate economy or promoted goods or services which could be illegal, fake or counterfeit.” This includes ads that when clicked on deliver malware such as Trojans, fake anti-virus products, or fake software that can make a computer system more vulnerable; scams such as fake contests and job and investment scams (many of which display a maple leaf to appeal to Canadian users); gambling sites; and, perhaps most worryingly for parents, ads for the sex industry – primarily pornographic sites but also dating and “foreign bride” sites and sexual aids. And you don’t have to be looking for pornographic content to see ads for pornographic websites: many appear when searching for other content on rogue sites.

So what can parents do about these sites? Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as blocking them: there are hundreds of them, and by the time you’ve heard of one, dozens more have sprung up like mushrooms (the best-known of these sites, the Pirate Bay, was not in the top thirty according to the report). While keeping your security software up-to-date and other anti-malware strategies are always helpful, they don’t protect your children from gambling sites, scams or adult content (and may not work if you directly download malware). In addition, thanks to the rise of legitimate video streaming sites such as YouTube, National Film Board and broadcasters such as TVO, it’s no longer possible to use how much data you’re using each month as an indicator of whether or not your Internet connection is being used to download illegal files.

As with so many online issues, the only reliable strategy is to talk to your children about rogue websites early and often. With younger kids you can stress the risks of negative consequences, such as infecting your computer with malware, but you should also discuss the moral and ethical reasons not to use these sites and steer them towards legitimate ways of getting the same content. As they get older and less worried about taking risks, those ethical arguments become more central to how youth decide what to do.

What’s most important is to make clear to your children what you think is acceptable and unacceptable online behaviour: our study Young Canadians in a Wired World found that students who had rules at home about downloading or streaming music, TV shows or movies were almost 50 percent more likely to report never doing this and just over half as likely to report doing this once a day or more (18% compared to 27% without rules). The number of students with a rule about streaming or downloading at home, though, drops tremendously as they get older, from a peak of almost half of students in Grade 4 to just one in six by Grade 11. Unfortunately, this drop comes at the same time that downloading rises, showing once again that even when our children are ahead of us technically, they still need us to guide them in making smart and safe decisions online.

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[1] Price, David. Sizing the Piracy Universe (September 2013) http://creativefuture.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/01/netnames-sizing_piracy_universe-FULLreport-sept2013.pdf
[2] Watters, Paul, The Prevalence of High-Risk and Mainstream Advertisements Targeting Canadians on Rogue Websites (December 2, 2013). http://ssrn.com/abstract=2389850