These are bad times for paywalls. The business model seen as a solution for newspapers struggling to adapt to the internet has taken another battering with the launch of Chrome 76, the latest version of the world’s most popular browser.
Google has made some interesting changes: the first, a default block on Flash content, with the goal of eliminating support by December 2020, coinciding with Adobe’s plans to withdraw it. This was foreseeable: most browsers have been blocking what for years was the web’s star application for the distribution of content, but problematic in terms of security.
Another, more striking change has been to eliminate web sites’ ability to detect the use of incognito mode, which allows us to access sites that limit the number of visits.
Paywalls were seen as a business model for web journalism, allowing users to read a certain amount of content per month. The idea was to get us to subscribe if we thought the content good enough. The usual way round this was to locate the cookies used by the page to track user activity and eliminate them, a not particularly difficult maneuver, but somewhat tedious. Other fixes were to use browser plugins or tools to extract text from the site.
Now, things are even simpler: just click with the right button and open content in an incognito window so that the site treats you as a new visitor each time: in principle it is unable to know how many pages you have read, which pretty much destroys the value proposition of that model. It now seems that the only way forward for online publications is to persuade us to subscribe voluntarily. Either that or create a closed site that requires a username and password, which will typically lead to a sharp fall in readers and progressive loss of relevance, as many regional and local media in Spain have done. Throw the possibility of blocking advertising into the mix as a way to fund their activities and things are looking very tricky for many publications and will require a strategic rethink of their relationship the public.
I’ve been saying it for years: if your business model is to look for ways to prevent users from accessing specific content, your business model is dead. The internet simply does not allow that kind of business model to survive in the medium or long term: it is a simple matter of understanding how technology develops. Anybody who really wants to will always find a way in to a site without paying, and it has now become so simple that virtually anyone can. This doesn’t just apply to news, music or movies: trying to keep people out is not a viable option and sites need to use their imagination and find other models.
(En español, aquí)