Google to close ‘incognito’ loophole, leaving some publisher paywall strategies in strife

Consumers desperate to avoid publishers’ paywalls may have been thrown a lifeline, with Google strengthening the privacy of its ‘incognito’ browsing mode.

At the moment, even if a consumer is in incognito mode – ostensibly protecting their privacy – sites have been able to detect them. This has, until now, allowed publishers to stop people from avoiding metered paywalls, and forced them to log in.

From 30 July, however, Google’s Chrome browser will “remedy” this loophole, which the tech company admits will affect some publishers.

“The change will affect sites that use the File System API to intercept incognito mode sessions and require people to log in or switch to normal browsing mode on the assumption that these individuals are attempting to circumvent metered paywalls,” Barb Palser, Google’s partner development manager of news and web partnerships said in a blog post.

The move will affect publishers with a freemium, or metered, model which gift consumers a limited number of free articles before getting them to log in and pay for content. Currently, even if a consumer tries to circumvent the count by ‘going incognito’, publishers have been able to identify the tactic.

Palser said the metered model was “inherently porous” anyway, and suggested that, in light of the changes, publishers strengthen their paywall strategies.

“Sites that wish to deter meter circumvention have options such as reducing the number of free articles someone can view before logging in, requiring free registration to view any content, or hardening their paywalls,” she said.

“Other sites offer more generous meters as a way to develop affinity among potential subscribers, recognising some people will always look for workarounds.”

In further advice for publishers, Palser said they should monitor the effects of the changes before implementing any reactive measures.

“Any impact on user behaviour may be different than expected, and any change in meter strategy will impact all users, not just those using incognito mode,” she noted.

Google said while it respects publishers’ paywall strategies, the current model undermines the intrinsic idea behind incognito browsing, and it needed to respect internet users’ privacy.

“People choose to browse the web privately for many reasons,” the blog post explained. “Some wish to protect their privacy on shared or borrowed devices, or to exclude certain activities from their browsing histories.

“In situations such as political oppression or domestic abuse, people may have important safety reasons for concealing their web activity and their use of private browsing features.

“We want you to be able to access the web privately, with the assurance that your choice to do so is private as well.”


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