Incognito no more: Publishers close loopholes as paywall blockers emerge

Subscription publishers have tightened their paywalls, plugging leaks and reducing the number of articles readers access before subscribing. But as reader revenue becomes more of a focus, more sophisticated ways of dodging paying have emerged.

There have always been a number of low-tech ways to circumvent cookie-based metered paywalls, where the same content is freely available in some but not all cases. For instance deleting cookies, using multiple browsers and copying the URL are go-to methods, and are near impossible to mitigate against. However, over the last 18 months, publishers have started plugging these gaps.

In February, The New York Times started tightening its paywall so readers couldn’t access paywalled content by switching their device to incognito mode. A New York Times spokesperson said it’s too early to glean the impacts of these tests.

The Washington Post has blocked users from accessing paywalled content using incognito mode, as has The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and The Dallas Morning News. In 2016, The Wall Street Journal experimented with Google to prevent people from accessing paywalled content. Google’s ending of first-click free now means that subscription publishers can still appear in Google search results without offering access.

However, automated tools and browser extensions that block JavaScript that triggers paywalls are emerging, albeit just for the Firefox browser so far, which accounts for just 5% of global browser market share. Installing it requires a little heavy lifting, downloading several extensions via a visit to GitHub.

“You have to be a real hard-core geek to enable any paywall blocker,” said Michael Silberman, svp strategy at paywall tech provider Piano. “For now, it’s a very narrow behavior.”

However, as with ad blocking technologies, more technologies will likely emerge that make bypassing cookie-based metered paywalls more mainstream. In January, the Reuters Digital News Report predicted a growing adoption of “subscription blockers” for metered paywalls. Forcing users to log in for any content is one workaround, but this will reduce fly-by users and the resulting advertising revenue.

“As paywalls are becoming more frequent, we will absolutely see more paywall blockers,” said Robin Govik, chief digital officer at Swedish media group MittMedia. “It’s a truth, at least in military science, that every measure will meet a countermeasure.”

That said, although it’s difficult to measure how many people circumvent meter paywalls, it’s unlikely that paywall blockers will reach the epidemic that ad blockers did. That’s partly because the motivations are different: Frustrations with too many ads and privacy concerns roused an active and vocal community to fight back.

“Fundamentally, I think this is a very different proposition to ad blockers,” said Cecilia Campbell, a consultant for the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers. “With advertising, your revenue comes equally from loyal visitors and fly-bys; all clicks are equal. With healthy user relationships in parallel with developing relevant personalized content, users are less likely to block paywalls.”

As such, focusing on this small cohort of people who might always avoid paywalls shouldn’t be as much of a priority for publishers as tactics like driving retention.

“Free riders aren’t that valuable; it’s a low likelihood they will ever pay, so why bother,” said Silberman. “Publishers are trying to find the right balance between restricting access and making it harder for current and prospective subscribers who are considering it. They don’t want to add too much friction and are wary of tactics that get in the way of that.”

Not all publishers are perturbed by the growing possibility of freeloaders. Publishers like News UK’s The Times of London and Sweden’s MittMedia have harder paywalls embedded on their platforms, where readers need to enter details to access any content. These are harder to implement and harder to circumvent, and so less vulnerable to these skirting tactics.

In this case, the issue of user experience and the process of authentication is of more concern than paywall blockers, according to Chris Duncan, managing director at The Times of London.

“I suspect the greater challenge that may face the industry as more people move to subscriptions is how we keep making it easy for subscribers to access the content they have paid for without continually having to provide authentication details.”

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