Chrome’s privacy changes are a humbling reminder for subscription publishers

Google has been eager to position itself as a friend to the news business. But a change coming to the search giant’s Chrome browser raises questions about how much influence Google’s pro-news contingent has within the sprawling tech company.

At the end of July, a software update to Chrome will make websites unable to detect whether visitors are browsing the web in “incognito mode,” Google’s term for private browsing. Incognito mode temporarily prevents sites from reading or writing cookies to a computer or smartphone, which keeps paywalls from knowing how much of that site’s content a visitor has consumed or how often that person has visited, rendering paywalls useless. A growing number of publishers had figured out how to detect which users were browsing in incognito mode, and had started blocking access to their content until they registered with the site or purchased a subscription.

Chrome began testing this change in late April, but publishers have been complaining to Google about it since February, when a Chrome developer first proposed testing the change.

A source at the News Media Alliance said when the organization shared complaints with Google’s news partnerships team, the news partnerships group seemed unaware that the test was underway; subsequent conversations revealed that Google’s news and chrome teams had connected and that Google planned to prioritize consumer privacy over the news industry’s concerns, that source said.

As soon as the tests started, publishers saw a loophole they’d worked hard to close beginning to reopen; Google saw work being done to correct a bug in the name of protecting user privacy.

When reached for comment, a Google spokesperson wrote in an email that the company understood that enforcing meters in environments where cookies are not persistent is a challenge across browsers.

As a possible workaround, the spokesperson proposed that sites could force all users that arrive to a site without cookies to register and log in for access to a certain number of free stories.

Google has earned praise from some publishers for the work it has done to help them pursue consumer revenue, pledging to spend hundreds of millions not just on building new tools but funding research into new business models for news publishers. But developments like these, along with ad tech-shaking changes forced on publishers’ programmatic operations and plans to block certain kinds of ads by default in Chrome, are the latest reminder that Google’s efforts to help publishers do not supersede the search giant’s larger business priorities.

“This most recent move is really disappointing,” said one executive at a news publisher who wished to remain anonymous. “What we’ve found is that the publisher team within Google is in a vertical silo; the search folks are in a vertical silo; the ad folks are in a vertical silo. The cross-over points where all the intersection happens are up at the senior executive level, where it’s hard to get anybody to pay attention.”

“I don’t know whether the silos are intentional or accidental,” the executive added. “But at the same time, if their interest was really in helping publishers, they’d be able to bring the point of contact down to where we could speak to them.”

It is difficult to gauge how big a risk the Chrome change could mean for the news industry. Though Chrome dominates the browser market, claiming 69% worldwide market share among desktop and 59% share among mobile browsers, according to Statcounter, stats on the prevalence of private browsing are harder to come by.

Research conducted in 2017 by the privacy-focused browser Duck Duck Go found that 46% of internet users had surfed the internet in private browsing mode at least once, but only about 11% of respondents used it on a weekly basis, mostly to avoid having “embarrassing searches” saved on their devices.

Publishers may have limited legal recourse as well. Though some publishers could try to frame Chrome’s incognito mode as a tool that encourages copyright infringement, a publisher would have to successfully argue that Chrome, as a browser, is either marketed as a way to infringe on copyright, that Chrome has limited commercial use beyond copyright infringement or that it was designed expressly to enable copyright infringement, said Kendra Albert, a clinical instructor at the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard Law School.

“It’s quite difficult to imagine Chrome meeting any of the criteria required to bring an anti-trafficking claim,” Albert said. “I can understand why many news providers would find the change pretty obnoxious, but I think it’s consistent with what incognito mode is supposed to do.”

Opinions differ on how valuable an audience publishers risk losing because of this change. While industry wisdom holds that people who use incognito mode tend not to become subscribers, there is anecdotal evidence that blocking access among those users works. The Dallas Morning News, for example, sees between 7% and 15% of its site’s unique users visit in incognito mode, according to Mark Francescutti, director of digital marketing operations at the Dallas Morning News. He added that the publisher had amassed a “good number” of subscribers by blocking their access in incognito mode, though he declined to share a specific value.

Since paywalls have come back into vogue among publishers as they hunt for consumer revenue, some have been steeling themselves for the arrival of paywall blockers, which have begun to appear as extensions in the Firefox browser. But while ad-blocking still costs publishers hundreds of millions of dollars a year in revenue, according to the Association of Online Publishers, publishers are hopeful that the value proposition at the heart of a subscription will limit adoption of paywall blockers.

“We are working hard to build the message that supporting our journalism is important to the community,” Francescutti said. “If we can’t block [incognito access], we will have to find another solution.”

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