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Death of the metered paywall: Google makes it official

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A month ago, almost to the day, we reported that Chrome would make it easier to bypass paywalls. Google has now made it official, confirming that with the release of Chrome 76—slated for July 30—publishers will no longer be able to detect when a user is in Incognito Mode.

This will affect some publishers who have used the loophole to deter metered paywall circumvention.

Barb Palser, News and Web Partnerships, Google

With around 64% market share, Chrome is by far the most popular internet browser. One of the easiest (and hence, popular) hacks to get around metered paywalls is Chrome’s private browsing, i.e., using the Incognito Mode.

“Private browsing modes are one of several tactics people use to manage their cookies and thereby “reset” the meter count,” Google admits.

Publishers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and The Dallas Morning News have all implemented measures to block users from accessing paywalled content using Incognito Mode.

Once Chrome 76 rolls out, all these measures will fail. 

For anyone using Incognito Mode, it will become impossible for a publisher to detect if the user is a paying subscriber or whether the person has passed the monthly quota of free articles. 

Not just for now, the company also confirmed that it will actively monitor possible efforts to bypass the restriction, and will “work to remedy any other current or future means of Incognito Mode detection.”

Our News teams support sites with meter strategies and recognize the goal of reducing meter circumvention, however any approach based on private browsing detection undermines the principles of Incognito Mode. 

Barb Palser, News and Web Partnerships, Google

According to Google, “people may have important safety reasons for concealing their web activity,” and the company wants to tighten its privacy features further, with “the assurance that your choice to do so is private as well.”

Google has advised publishers “that wish to deter meter circumvention” to look into other options like “requiring free registration to view any content, or hardening their paywalls.”

The News Media Alliance has called on Google to rethink these changes. “It’s disappointing that Google is again unilaterally imposing its will on news publishers,” said the group’s president, David Chavern.

Since incognito browsing circumvents soft paywalls, and therefore free-sampling opportunities, publishers may be forced to build hard paywalls that ultimately make it harder for readers to access news online.

David Chavern, News Media Alliance

Expecting publishers to make quick changes in light of this development, Google has cautioned, “We suggest publishers monitor the effect of the FileSystem API change before taking reactive measures since any impact on user behavior may be different than expected and any change in meter strategy will impact all users, not just those using Incognito Mode.”

“We remain open to exploring solutions that are consistent with user trust and private browsing principles,” it concluded, giving publishers less than 2-weeks’ official notice before initiating a massive change that will fundamentally affect the business models of publishers big and small.

As things stand now, Google’s announcement marks the death of the metered paywall.