The ad blocking controversy is still fresh, and now publishers have to contend with yet another salvo from Google Chrome. The next version of the browser, Chrome 76—scheduled for a public release in late July—will introduce a set of changes in its API implementation that will make it practically impossible for publishers to detect when a Chrome browser is in incognito mode.
Publishers that rely on subscriptions and paywalls are aware of the popular incognito hack to bypass paywalls, and have been closing loopholes as various paywall blockers emerge. 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.
With Chrome 76, websites will no longer be able to detect when a user is in incognito mode. “This is because Incognito Mode temporarily blocks a site’s ability to read or write cookies on your device, making it impossible for a publisher to know if you are a paying subscriber or if you have passed your monthly quota of free articles,” says Ravie Lakshmanan, Author at The Next Web.
According to Chrome developer Paul Irish, from now on codes that attempt to detect incognito mode will be rendered useless, thereby making it possible to bypass soft paywalls, like those of The New York Times and The Washington Post.
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.
“As paywalls are becoming more frequent, we will absolutely see more paywall blockers,” Robin Govik, Chief Digital Officer at Swedish media group MittMedia, told Digiday. “It’s a truth, at least in military science, that every measure will meet a countermeasure.”
Publishers will now have to figure out a new way so readers can’t access paywalled content by switching their device to incognito mode. Not everyone believes that it’s worth the trouble, though.
“Free riders aren’t that valuable; it’s a low likelihood they will ever pay, so why bother,” said Michael Silberman, SVP Strategy at paywall tech provider Piano. “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.”
“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,” according to Chris Duncan, Managing Director at The Times of London.
It’s worth noting that if a publication has a complete paywall for all articles, the incognito mode bypass method will not work at all. For only those with a metered setup, with a limit on free articles, the browser’s incognito mode workaround may need looking into.
Chrome 76 Stable is expected to be released on July 30, 2019.
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