Online publishers using metered paywalls that have been relying on the capability to intercept incognito mode sessions on Google Chrome will soon have to rethink their strategy.

Google confirmed in a blog post on Thursday that it is closing an API-related loophole that made it possible to detect when people were privately browsing in Chrome. The change has been in the works for several months but will take effect on July 30.

Unlike hard paywalls or registration walls, which require people to log in to view any content, metered paywalls offer a fixed number of free articles before you must log in.

Publishers currently track users even if they are accessing the site in private mode – requiring people to log in or switch to normal browsing mode to continue reading content or upgrade to a paid subscription for continued access.

Some of the publishers that will be affected once the loophole is closed include The New York Times, Washington Post, Wired, Bloomberg, Digiday and many others.

In the blog post outlining the impeding update, Barb Palser, partner development manager, News and Web Partnerships at Google, offered a few recommendations:
  • reduce the number of metered free articles
  • require free registration to view content
  • “harden” paywalls (i.e., make them stricter)
A recent report by Nieman Lab noted that publishers have already been moving towards tighter metered paywalls – typically by lowering the number of free articles, but also by using more predictive analytics to individualise paywalls and blocking incognito browsers.

And a Reuters Institute report at the start of the year found that 52% of publishers surveyed said building logged-in audiences would be their top business priority in 2019.

Google’s move to close the Chrome incognito loophole could “encourage more publishers to go all in on a hard paywall”, which in turn might frustrate searchers who would encounter more links that have registration or subscription screens.

The Chrome update marks another development in on-going efforts by technology platforms to proactively enable better privacy controls for its users amidst increasing regulatory scrutiny and consumer concerns over data usage and tracking.

Google has been beefing up privacy controls on Chrome, following in Apple’s footsteps, letting web users prevent sites from tracking online behaviour. Facebook, meanwhile, is developing a “clear history” button that would let users erase data that connects them to web visits and advertisers outside the social network.

Sourced from Google, Niemen Lab, Reuters Institute, Ad Age; additional content by WARC staff