Evading Site Registration: Ethical Pros and Cons

Earlier in CONTENTIOUS I blogged BugMeNot, a site that shares account access information for registration-required content sites. Personally, it strikes me as needlessly invasive when sites require me register in order to access free content. I don’t want them tracking my personal reading habits. They’re getting to serve ads to me with their content no matter what, and as far as I’m concerned I owe them nothing more.

However, paid content is another matter entirely. If a site charges for access to its content, and paid subscriber accounts have a username and password, then in my opinion sharing paid account access information IS stealing. I do have a problem with outright theft.

A recent entry in the Weblog of the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet (generously translated for me today by CONTENTIOUS reader Realf Ottesen) tipped me off that BugMeNot might be sharing paid account access information, at least inadvertently.

Fortunately, that turned out not to be the case. However, the issue of sharing paid account access info opens up a whole new can of ethical worms…

The Dagbladet entry mentioned the entertainment-industry publication Variety, which allows online access to most of its content only to its paid subscribers.

Indeed, through BugMeNot I was able to find functional subscriber access information to Variety. (At least, it was functioning as of this morning.) Originally, it looked to me like I was getting free access to Variety’s paid content – but in fact, I was accessing a free 30-day trial account.

So, contrary to my original assertion, BugMeNot did NOT tell me how to steal Variety’s content. I apologize for that misunderstanding. To clarify, when I logged in to Variety using the account info I got from BugMeNot, it was not apparent that the access was a free trial.

BugMeNot opposes theft of paid content. They say so in their FAQ: “All submissions to BugMeNot.com are screened by human volunteers. No accounts to paid services will ever be posted.”

THE REALITY OF THE SITUATION:

I’m relieved to see that BugMeNot did not supply free access to premium content after all.

That said, it’s inevitable that some people will choose to share their access to paid content services. It’s just like the retail business – there will always be some shoplifters. Paid content sites need to be aware of this (I’m sure they already are, in fact) and do what they can to monitor and safeguard their “goods” from theft.

Still, theft is a risk that all paid content suppliers face. If more and more people decide to steal premium content, that risk looks bigger and bigger to premium content providers, and they may decide to stop offering online content altogether. That would be a shame.

So here’s my advice: If you don’t like to register for online access to free content, please use account-sharing resources like BugMeNot judiciously. Don’t use shared account information to access premium content without paying. That’s just wrong. And if you have an access account to a paid online content service, please don’t share that information with others, by any means.

The same thing goes for private or members-only information. If a group (such as a professional association, consulting firm, university, or support network) opts to restrict online access to its content to its members, clients, etc., then borrowing someone’s account to access that content is like breaking into someone’s home or business. Don’t do it.

A lot of the best services we have on the Net operate on the honor system (more or less). It’s your decision whether to act honorably – and to define what “honorable” means to you. If your personal sense of honor requires you to register for access to free content, then that’s fine. (For instance, Canadian blogger Jim Elve appears to lean toward that end of the honor spectrum.) I respect that. If you find such registration requirements invasive and choose to circumvent them, fine.

But please, CONTENTIOUS readers, do not descend into outright theft of content that the providers have chosen to charge money for. It’s not up to you to decide which content “should” be free. If the provider charges for access, and you sneak in, you’re stealing. Period.

4 thoughts on Evading Site Registration: Ethical Pros and Cons

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  1. You say, “it strikes me as needlessly invasive when sites require me to register in order to access free content”

    There is no such thing as “free content”

    I spend hours each week answering readers questions, writing new content, creating new materials through consulting experiences, and pay for hosting services. The overhead alone costs hundreds a week. Even more, isn’t my time worth something?

    While I might give content to industry publications, I require a valid registration to access most content on my site. I want to know exactly who is reading it, and be available to answer questions.

    The more I know about the thousands of readers at my site, the more relevant I can make my content. I don’t have advertisers, but when I serve the desires of my readers, I’m rewarded when they purchase my training materials.

    As a publisher, I also reserve the right to restrict access to my publications based on criteria that I establish. Spending time with unqualified readers takes away from those who will benefit the most from what I provide.

    If you’re accessing materials without properly identifying yourself, it’s just as bad as stealing. Site registration is a form of payment for content, it provides information about readers which is used to gain advertisers or shape content to better serve their needs.

    Am I missing something?

    Sincerely,

    Justin Hitt
    Consultant, Author & Speaker
    http://iunctura.com/

  2. To Travis Smith (editor, Variety.com),

    Regarding your comment below: Thanks very much for your clarification. I’ve corrected my article in light of your information.

    I understand that Variety has good intentions and sound business reasons for gathering personal information from the people who wish to read your publication online. I don’t fault you for trying to collect that data.

    Still, the form that people must complete to request a free online subscription to Variety does require a lot of info that many privacy-conscious and spam-averse people would hesitate to divulge, at least honestly — particularly their name, job title, e-mail, and postal address. I hope you understand that such a detailed form represents a barrier to many people who might otherwise be interested in, and willing to subscribe to, Variety’s content.

    I understand that it irks you when visitors to your site do not supply the information that you request politely, or use a shared dummy account to gain access. I suspect this will be an ongoing point of contention between online publishers and audiences. Each publication must find its own solution, and accept that some readers will not be happy with that solution. There’s no way to please everyone.

    I ask you to consider that the people who choose to access your site through a shared dummy account in fact represent a group of potential customers that your current content-access strategy does not adequately serve. Variety may or may not wish to pursue that market segment — that’s your decision, and I respect that. But it seems to me that, at the very least, getting to know more about this market segment might ultimately yield new and better access strategies for your publication.

    Respectfully,

    Amy Gahran
    – Editor, CONTENTIOUS

  3. As I posted at Poynter… The account listed on BugMeNot for Variety is actually a free trial account; at this time free trials last 30 days. We don’t allow people to register for multiple free trials, or to share their free trial account with others; however, as you mention, if someone really doesn’t want to give you information, they won’t. We try our best to give the truth to our readers ever day. It irks me that some readers don’t feel the need to reciprocate when asked politely.

    Travis F. Smith
    Editor, Variety.com

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