Google’s New Chrome Makes It Easier to Bypass Newspaper Paywalls

The Google logo is seen on a computer screen in a photo illustration
The Google logo is seen on a computer.
Alastair Pike/Getty Images

Most of us have done it. (OK, I’ve done it.) Just a quick slip into Google Chrome’s Incognito Mode. Juke that paywall to read an important news story on that website we’ve been meaning to buy a subscription to. For a while, it worked. Then it started to not. Some of the biggest news sites—like the New York Times and the Washington Post—implemented a fix to block users in Incognito Mode from avoiding metered paywalls that allow readers to view a certain number of articles before asking them to subscribe to keep reading. The measure detected Incognito Mode and preemptively blocked content, assuming the worst of the user, which is probably fair.

In good news for readers but bad news for the papers, the latest update to Google’s Chrome browser promises to bring back the Incognito Mode workaround. The release of Chrome 76 on Tuesday closes the “loophole” that allowed sites like the Times and the Post to detect when a user is in private browsing mode in order to block their content. Closing that loophole opens up the other one. Google said its update is about privacy. “We want you to be able to access the web privately, with the assurance that your choice to do so is private as well,” the company wrote in a blog post announcing the update. For news organizations already struggling to stay afloat, though, the change is another curveball thrown by the tech giant. And it could mean changes for how you get your news.

Chrome currently controls about two-thirds of browser market share worldwide, so any change to the browser is sure to affect the one-third of news organizations, largely newspapers, that use a metered paywall. Sites use cookies to count the number of articles read, and then they block their content after the reader’s reached the limit. Even Google admits that Incognito Mode is “one of the several tactics people use to manage their cookies and thereby ‘reset’ the meter count,” allowing them to keep reading an infinite number of articles for free that they’re supposed to be paying for.

With the change in Chrome 76, it’ll be nearly impossible for news sites to have a functional metered paywall, and nearly every major national and regional newspaper currently uses one. (Most TV news outlets and digital-native news sites have avoided using paywalls.) They’ll either lose money (why buy a subscription when you can keep reading for free?), or they will come up with another method of paywalling their content. “It’s disappointing that Google is again unilaterally imposing its will on news publishers,” News Media Alliance CEO David Chavern said in a statement. “As it stands now, Google’s planned changes will make it much harder for people to access news online.”

Two others options might emerge as newspapers respond to Google’s changes: the freemium model, in which some premium content is behind a paywall and other content is free, or a hard paywall, in which all content is behind a paywall, and you can’t read anything for free. Neither of those relies on cookies so they can’t be circumvented by Incognito Mode. The Wall Street Journal, for example, had a hard paywall until 2016 and still sort of does. (You can’t bypass it with the new Chrome. I tested it.) Slate uses a freemium model. You might end up seeing more of those hard paywalls, which have rarely been used until now. “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,” Chavern said.

Google had its own suggestions for news publishers: harden your paywalls or requires users to log in with free registration before they can view any content. The problem is that Google didn’t give news publishers a lot of warning that it would be making this change. Digital Trends first reported the fix in February, but Google didn’t confirm it until earlier this month. Now news publishers will have to scramble to come up with a fix.