‘Lowest of the low’: Mysterious website under fire, accused of stealing content

Journalists across Canada have been sounding the alarm over a mysterious website stealing content. Cyber experts say consumers could also be impacted. Pat Taney reports.

By Pat Taney

Journalists across Canada have been sounding the alarm bell about a website that’s accused of swiping content from legitimate outlets on a daily basis.

“It’s just wholesale theft,” said Ethan Cox, co-founder of Ricochet Media, based in Montreal. “We specialize in investigative, in-depth, context rich journalism.”

Original reporting that takes countless hours to uncover and report. So, he was shocked when he noticed an exclusive story they broke, appear on another so-called news website claiming it as their own.

“I was on Reddit and saw the headline of an article we had just published with a different URL. And so I went, ‘What is this?’ And I clicked on it. Now I’ve been down that rabbit hole for the last five days,” he said.

What he uncovered is alarming. The website is full of stories stolen from media outlets across the globe.

“We did an audit of the site. We verified the top 18 articles published on the site and every single one of them we could track back to the original media outlet it was stolen from,” he said.  “The results of our audit are very clear that this site is composed 100 per cent of stolen content.”

All of the articles claim to be written by someone named “Investigative Journalist” and some of the words in the articles have been changed.

This is a bit more sophisticated than some similar sites,” Cox said. “They appear to be changing in very small ways the wording of these articles to try and evade detection from automated programs that newsrooms use to check for this type of attack and it appears they’re doing it with Artificial Intelligence (A.I.).  The fake author’s bio and photo appears to have also been generated by A.I.”

The use of A.I. which is rapidly growing, makes it easier for websites like this one to steal content. While it took the investigative reporter with Ricochet Media more than 25 hours to work on the story they posted, it takes an A.I. robot minutes to recreate it, according to cyber expert, Robert Falzon, with Check Point Software.

Say you write a story, they’ll take that story, paste it into a generative A.I. system and tell it, ‘Hey, can you rewrite this story in a way that makes it appear as though it was written by us.’ A.I. will then do its best to do exactly that.”

The point of the website is to get clicks, perhaps for ad revenue. But Falzon warns consumers these websites could be feeding them more than just stolen news.

“They could also be feeding them malware or adware scams and things like that as well.”

Cox went on mission to get website shut down

Given the fact the website was stealing articles, without any credit and the concern it could be putting users at risk, Cox started to work overtime to report it by going through the proper channels. A process that has taken a lot more effort than he had hoped.

Creators of original content who notice their work has been stolen can file a complaint through the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (D.M.C.A.) which is part of U.S. copyright law but is accepted throughout the world.

“I would file D.M.C.A. complaints with the company that hosts this website but was told I had to do so by reporting each individual story,” he said. “You have to play whack-a-mole. I would have to monitor their site every single day and send a report about every single article they steal. And maybe three days later, they’ll take down that article, it should not be this hard.”

Cox was successfully able to get the stories stolen from his website taken down but remained frustrated that the site was still operating. So, he began to put pressure on the hosting company, Hostinger.

After several days, he got the answer he was looking for.

“They’ve permanently suspended the site and are promising to review their policies so something like this doesn’t happen again,” Cox told us through email.

One down, many more to go experts say

Cox is celebrating the victory, but he and cyber experts warn websites like this one aren’t alone and many more will likely follow. While this website is accused of swiping content, it did not appear to change the narrative of the stolen stories.

Falzon says other website creators, using A.I. technology, could.

They’re taking what could be a legit story and then maybe adding a point or two into it that isn’t true. And that affects all of us because if you’re not making decisions like how to vote, for example, using correct and valid information, you’re going to have scenarios where the outcomes of those elections truly aren’t fair.”

Cox also points out websites that steal content are profiting off the backs of hard-working journalists. Ricochet is a non-profit news outlet.

These are small, reader supported outlets that depend on ad revenue and for pirates or thieves to be targeting the smallest, most vulnerable profit public interest newsrooms that do work that is essential to our democracy is very unfortunate.

Calls for A.I. legislation growing

Both Cox and Falzon say changes to current laws regarding the use of A.I. should be revisited.

Because these technologies are advancing so rapidly there really isn’t the background or associated legislation to help protect us from the things that these tools are capable of foisting upon us,” Falzon said.

Falzon points to the European Union which could be close to adopting the A.I. act, the world’s first written law to regulate A.I. use.

“It would require websites to identify when they’re using A.I. in any sort of generative way to distribute information to the public.”

Currently there is no regulatory framework when it comes to A.I. in Canada. But legislation has been proposed.

If passed, the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act (AIDA), introduced as part of the Digital Charter Implementation Act, 2022, will attempt to regulate A.I. in Canada.

“The Act would ensure that A.I. systems deployed in Canada are safe and non-discriminatory and would hold businesses accountable for how they develop and use these technologies,” the Act states.

The legislation is still in committee.

Cox has yet to look through the legislation but says conversations should include pressure on tech giants to do more to shut down these websites,

We absolutely need government to step in,” he said. “I can certainly tell you that we’ll be working with other outlets to advocate for them to at least reach out to the tech giants and explain that this is unacceptable and ask for an explanation.”

While we wait to see if those conversations will be fruitful, Falzon says this is an issue that will be around for years to come.

There’s a real lack of understanding over this very serious issue,” he said. “Besides legislation, I think there needs to be a real ramp up in education and understanding — even from the youngest age, so our children will be better prepared to deal with these technologies which will only grow rapidly from here.”

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