Free content can come at a nasty price

John Gushue
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Several weeks ago, I was reading about the music business and came across a bit about a famous incident in which Tom Petty fought against price increases with MCA, his own record label. Back in 1981, MCA had the idea of jacking up the price of Petty’s then-forthcoming album to $9.98, instead of the usual $8.98.

How quaint, I thought. Not the pricing — with inflation over almost three decades, that pricey record would be about $24 in today’s money — but the whole thought of how much attention got paid at the time to the dispute.

Can you imagine millions of kids today getting worked up over the cost of a new record? The short answer is that they won’t, because a full generation of music-loving youth is entirely accustomed to getting its music for free. Sure, iTunes has proven that digital retailing works, and stubborn independents like Fred’s here in St. John’s can prove the value of customer service, but many kids simply don’t want to and don’t expect to pay anything at all for the music streaming through their earbuds.

But are there other costs to be considered?

Well, yes. A newly published piece says there are plenty.

MacAfee report on digital threats

Granted, this latest bit of research (the link above is to a PDF) comes from MacAfee, the security company whose entire business model is based on your feelings that the digital world is facing constant threat.

Published this week, the report has a subtitle called “The true cost of free entertainment.” It’s meant to ring alarm bells. Here’s a sentence that fits the overall tone: “Adding the word ‘free’ to a search for music ringtones results in a three-fold increase in the riskiness of the sites returned by major search engines in English.”

While I might have been cynical enough about MacAfee’s true motivations for reminding the public of security risks, I wound up nodding with the points that the report makes, even though many of them are either common sense or widely reported.

In a nutshell, the report explains that much of the free content that consumers seek out — not just porn, which is notoriously well connected to malware — is propped by nasty things, and far more malicious than those saucy ads that you can’t turn off. One of the best ways to get phishing apps into your computer, it seems, is to start with an offer too good to turn down.

The starting ingredient is being free. If you want it, there’s a good chance you can find it — a hit movie, a pop album, a video game, the episode from last night of the favourite show you missed. This isn’t to say that all the material streaming in players or downloading from torrents is tainted.

But MP3 files, the most common way to distribute music, are notorious ways to attach malware that can foul up your computer or install programs that make identity theft (or just credit card theft, for instance) possible.

Worse? Websites that appear to offer the freebies, but in fact are stacked to the max with malware. You may think you’re looking at, say, a celebrity site or getting a free download, and all you’re bringing into your home is trouble.

Check it out, and make a point of teaching your kids and yourself how to assess a service properly. (Children, after all, are far more naturally trusting and less likely to be suspicious of online risks.) If you’re going to chase after free content, get up to speed on those hidden costs.

Elsewhere this week

Life is Not Read-Only

For another perspective on copyright, read this quasi-manifesto by Olivier Cleynen, which celebrates the open-source ethic. It’s also clever.


Like Facebook, only with inadvertent and hilarious spelling, grammar or factual errors that various readers have found in their own networks. “(Im southern boy born-in-bred,” went one unfortunate comment.) Names have been erased to protect those who otherwise would look more foolish. A warning: Lamebook is often not safe for work.

John Gushue is an online editor with CBC News in St. John’s. Blog:

Organizations: CBC News

Geographic location: Im southern

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