“The only real law of history is the law of unintended consequences,” says finance and economics historian Niall Ferguson.
On July 30, Google Chrome will “remedy a loophole” that allows sites to detect people who are browsing in Incognito Mode.
As an apparently unintended consequence of this “remedy,” 33% of online news outlets, who use a metered paywall, will have their paywalls fully unlocked by one simple action, a right-click:
The world’s most popular web browser—used across Windows, Mac, Android, iOS and Linux—will effectively bring down a third of publisher paywalls by rolling out a simple patch, as Chrome browsers all over the globe auto-update to version 76 on July 30.
Today we take a look at what happens next.
Google’s “master key”
A number of major publishers like The New York Times, The Washington Post, Medium, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Times and The Dallas Morning News have safeguards in place to stop users from accessing paywalled content using Incognito Mode.
We tested the beta version of Chrome’s next update to gauge the extent of damage that will be inflicted on publisher paywalls. To cut a long story short, things aren’t looking good.
We tried to breach the paywalls of the publishers listed using Chrome’s current browser (v. 75), in Incognito Mode. Without fail, the websites detected the intrusion attempt and prevented access to the content.
Using v.76 (beta), each and every one of the paywalls got unlocked without any difficulty whatsoever.
Take a look at the screenshots below. In each case, we tried opening the exact same page using the current version (left) and the upcoming one (right).
No further explanations necessary.
Without exception, all metered paywalls can be bypassed—simply, and effectively—using Chrome 76.
With such major publishers unable to lock out unauthorized users from their paywalled content, it’s quite evident what will happen to the paywalls of smaller publishers.
The impact will be massive. A third of US/European digital news publishers lock away content behind metered paywalls. Google just made the master key available to all.
There are already attempts underway to use innovative detection methods to deal with this challenge, but Google has emphatically stated 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.”
This change will have long-lasting consequences for the publishing industry, and Google has already 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.”
Google’s move to close the Chrome incognito loophole could “encourage more publishers to go all in on a hard paywall,” according to WARC, which in turn might frustrate searchers who would encounter more links that have registration or subscription screens.
Publishers could take this as a sign to rethink their paywall strategies, according to Claudius Senst, head of consumer subscriptions at Business Insider. Instead of a metered paywall, Business Insider uses a hard paywall for select stories exclusive to paying subscribers, so it will not be affected by Chrome’s update.
Senst told AdAge that publishers should stop playing cat-and-mouse games with readers determined to get around the constraints, and just show these readers how much more there is to offer if they become paying members.
A recent report by Nieman Lab noted that publishers have already been moving towards tighter metered paywalls. A Reuters Institute report found that 52% of publishers said building logged-in audiences would be their top business priority this year.
“Since incognito browsing circumvents soft paywalls, and therefore free-sampling opportunities, publishers may be forced to build hard paywalls,” said David Chavern, President of The News Media Alliance. “As it stands now, Google’s planned changes will make it much harder for people to access news online.”
As an unintended consequence of Google’s browser update, it is a very real possibility that a lot of publisher content would eventually disappear behind hard paywalls, and the open web would grow dark for many news consumers, with even darker consequences for publisher revenue streams.
Which would make Google’s introduction to Chrome 76 features quite fitting, in an ominous and ironic way.