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Worldwide, news publishers face a “platform reset”
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June 24, 2019, 12:34 p.m.
Audience & Social

Publishers will soon no longer be able to detect when you’re in Chrome’s incognito mode, weakening paywalls everywhere

A growing number of news sites block incognito readers, figuring they’re probably trying to get around a paywall. But a change from Google will again let people reset their meter with a keystroke.

Ever fall into this trap? (1) You hit a news site’s paywall; (2) being a sneak, you open up the web page in an incognito browser window to get around it; but (3) the news site can tell you’re in incognito mode, figures you’re up to no good, and blocks the story you’re trying to read.

Well, (3) is about to go away in the web’s most popular browser; the countdown to your sweet release is on. (Or, you know, you could subscribe.)

The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and The Dallas Morning News — among others — all employ some version of such an incognito catcher. The next version of Google Chrome, due out on July 30, will stop them, rendering their metered paywalls significantly leakier.

(In other news: Publishers, apply now for some Google News Initiative dollars! Google’s looking for “creative projects that generate revenue and/or increase audience engagement”! Or maybe sign up for Google’s Subscriptions Lab for publishers, aiming to “develop a sustainable and thriving business model for newspapers across North America — powered by digital subscriptions”! Google giveth and Google taketh away.)

Incognito mode has long been an easy way for dabblers to read just that one article that they really needed, since micropayments aren’t really working out and publishers weren’t too thirsty to beat them. But the reader revenue race is on, and so are the side-eyes on incognito mode users…for a little while longer.

Our Josh Benton described it here earlier this year:

Switching your web browser to incognito mode — that’s Chrome’s name for it; it’s Private Browsing in Safari and Firefox — temporarily blocks a site’s ability to read or write cookies on your device, and cookies are most typically how a subscription site knows whether you’re a paying customer or not. If you put all of your content behind a hard paywall — always requiring a login to get access — incognito mode isn’t a big worry. But if you have a metered paywall — where the same content is freely available in some circumstances but not in others — incognito mode essentially resets the meter every time.

There is one way the timing is odd, though. In order to treat incognito browsers differently, a website needs to be able to determine that they’re incognito browsers. Earlier this month, it came out that Google Chrome, the web’s most popular browser, was working to prevent sites from doing just that. Code that blinds servers to private browsing has already been added to the current Canary version of Chrome (a version used for early developer testing). New features in Canary, if all goes well, typically roll out to the standard Google Chrome in three or four months — so this sort of tactic will likely break by summer in the browser that currently has 63 percent market share.

And here we arrive at the July 30 expiration. Monojoy Bhattacharjee wrote about it at What’s New in Publishing:

Soft paywalls permit free reading of a limited number of articles per month, and the number of articles read is tracked using cookies. Where cookies cannot be used effectively — such as in incognito mode — publications have attempted to block access outright. With Chrome 76, that option is off the table.

Currently, the beta version of Chrome 76 is available for download, and there are already detailed guides available on how to get past paywalls in Chrome’s Incognito Mode.

Google viewed publishers’ ability to detect an incognito browser as a bug. But users’ ability to get around a paywall is apparently a feature.

What sort of impact might this change have? Publishers have been moving to tighter and tighter metered paywalls as their desire for reader revenue has strengthened — mostly by cutting how many free articles you get per month, but also by using more predictive analytics to individualize paywalls and by doing things like blocking incognito browsers. The reopening on this loophole could encourage more publishers to go all in on a hard paywall, in which you can’t read a single article without first registering.

Maybe if you have an idea for a good way to make that transition, you could apply for Google’s latest Innovation Challenges, which recently opened in the U.S. and Canada with a July 15 deadline! Or Latin America-based news outlets can apply for funding for “new business models and new news products” through July 22, and the Middle East/Africa/Turkey region can submit applications tied to “reader engagement and new business models in any form” through September 2. You’ll need to put your name on the application, though — Google will definitely be able to tell if you’re trying to go incognito.

Illustration by Scott Balmer used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 24, 2019, 12:34 p.m.
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