Boston Globe Blocks Readers Using Privacy Modes In Browsers

from the noncognito dept

While the Boston Globe has had a paywall on its site for some time -- the metered sort that lets you read a certain number of articles for free before insisting you sign up for an account with a subcription -- that paywall also featured an open tunnel allowing anyone running their browsers in private or incognito mode to drive right through it. This workaround was well known and used since at least 2014, although hunting around on google search results seems to make it clear that this was all found out because people generally like to use privacy and incognito modes in their browsers for the very reasons the browsers developed them: security and privacy.

Two things that perhaps the folks at the Boston Globe don't consider terribly important as they have elected to simply block all readership from browsers running in privacy modes unless the reader signs up for a subscription.

The Boston Globe website is closing off a hole in its paywall by preventing visitors who aren't logged in from reading articles in a browser's private mode.

"You're using a browser set to private or incognito mode" is the message given to BostonGlobe.com visitors who click on articles in private mode. "To continue reading articles in this mode, please log in to your Globe account." People who aren't already Globe subscribers are urged to subscribe.

It's a strange request for a couple of reasons. First, many privacy modes don't even keep sites from tracking what you're doing. They do, however, tend to limit the ability to track you across multiple different sites as you browse. Second, there is still a laughably easy workaround for anyone that wants to keep seeing free articles from the Boston Globe without a subscription: simply delete all cookies from the Boston Globe off of your computer and, voila, you get more free articles. Regardless of both, punishing readers for their privacy concerns probably isn't the best way to build subscription bases.

The Globe policy is a case of "disrespecting user preferences," Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Staff Technologist Alexei Miagkov told Ars. Miagkov was not aware of any other sites blocking users in private browsing mode.

Logging into the website in private mode puts your privacy at risk, he said. "By logging in you make it easy for them to keep tracking you, to keep building their (advertising) user profiles," he said. "They may also sync their tracking data with their advertising partners whereas if you hadn't logged in, those advertising partners might see a new visitor for every new incognito session."

It's worth noting that this isn't a technical limitation, but a choice that the Globe is making almost certainly for those advertising reasons. There are many newspaper sites that have managed to allow for free articles in privacy modes, such as The Chicago Tribune and USA Today. Whatever you think of paywalls generally, I can't imagine how this disregard for readers' privacy choices builds a path to long term paywall success.


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  • icon
    Chris ODonnell (profile), 24 May 2017 @ 2:01pm

    Lucky for The Globe 100% of their news is proprietary and can't be found on any other site.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2017 @ 2:04pm

    What's next? Block Tor users? VPNs?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Arthur Moore (profile), 24 May 2017 @ 2:17pm

    An issue that will probably be fixed

    The ability for websites to determine if a browser is running in private browsing mode is a concern in general.

    My bet is Mozilla and (maybe) the Chromium team will work on preventing this sort of detection in the future.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2017 @ 3:50pm

      Re: An issue that will probably be fixed

      The ability for websites to determine if a browser is running in private browsing mode is a concern in general.

      How would you stop it? They can try to set a cookie, maybe from another domain (ad network), and if you don't send it back they'll block you. If the browser sends it back, users can be tracked, so why have a privacy mode?

      The only real fix would be to use some sort of content-based peer-to-peer network so we could verify all users get exactly the same page and dependencies, and they wouldn't have to talk to the Globe's servers at all... which would rule out tracking, but why would the Globe go for that?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2017 @ 3:56pm

        Re: Re: An issue that will probably be fixed

        It would have to allow a cookie to be placed in temporary memory, to be overwritten once the session has ended.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2017 @ 7:28pm

          Re: Re: Re: An issue that will probably be fixed

          It would have to allow a cookie to be placed in temporary memory, to be overwritten once the session has ended.

          Firefox already has it: Preferences / Privacy / Always use private browsing mode / Accept cookies from sites... keep until (I close Firefox)

          Sites will be able to track you while the browser is open. Adding an "until I close the tab" option would be good, but even then, the site and ad network will be able to collude if it's permissive enough to be undetectable.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 24 May 2017 @ 2:20pm

    Second, there is still a laughably easy workaround for anyone that wants to keep seeing free articles from the Boston Globe without a subscription: simply delete all cookies from the Boston Globe off of your computer and, voila, you get more free articles.

    My browsers are set to delete all cookies automatically when I close them. That's not to get free news; it's a basic privacy measure.

    It means I have to enter my Techdirt credentials once or twice a day, but that's a small price to pay.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2017 @ 7:30pm

      Re:

      My browsers are set to delete all cookies automatically when I close them. ... It means I have to enter my Techdirt credentials once or twice a day, but that's a small price to pay.

      Firefox has an "exceptions" list for cookies. It looks possible to just "Allow" techdirt.com even if the others are session-only.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    afn29129 (profile), 24 May 2017 @ 2:23pm

    Firefox Add-ons

    "simply delete all cookies from the Boston Globe off of your computer and,..."

    This is one reason Self Destructing Cookies add-on is so dang nice. Cookies are automatically deleted once you navigate away from a site.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    orbitalinsertion (profile), 24 May 2017 @ 3:07pm

    You don't have to imagine how this builds a path to long term paywall success. You only have to imagine a petulant and impotent "fk you" from someone who wants control.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Rob, 24 May 2017 @ 3:20pm

    uBlock

    This is trivially blocked with uBlock and probably other ad blockers, so it doesn't really gain them all that much.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2017 @ 3:27pm

      Re: uBlock

      That's really the most confusing part of this. Telling the people who are browsing in private mode that they ALSO need to use an ad blocker will just make the problem worse for them.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 May 2017 @ 9:28pm

    Just noticed this trend? Can't see bad parts to the internet, then.

    I started using Noscript in 2005, think, soon as figured out how nasty a spy javascript is.

    ... (I can surely skip what should be familiar to techies, right?) ...

    Oh, and Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, and Google are ALL spying on you big time, along with every other corporation that can. As Snowden (remember him?) mentioned in 2013, and was forgotten with just the NSA blamed.

    You have no privacy on teh internets. The few who wish it will soon have no choice but to give up all modernities: they're already abolishing cash in Europe.

    Seems like was a book predicting universal spying and control system, named 1980-something...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    oliver, 25 May 2017 @ 12:13am

    It doesn't semm to be a "privacy" mode when the website is able to detect this mode?
    Call me cynical, but that seems to be a pretty big PROBLEM!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    DarkKnight (profile), 25 May 2017 @ 5:00am

    Really?

    Good Luck to the Boston Globe using this method to increase subscription. I don't live in Boston, so their local news isn't something I need. I can obtain international news without a subscription to the Boston Globe.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Mike L, 25 May 2017 @ 10:02am

    Other privacy-conscious configurations are working

    Articles working fine for me while using Privacy Badger, which is enough for me. Almost all of the third party trackers are blocked, but it allows Boston Globe to set cookies, by default. My Chrome settings clear those cookies on each relaunch. (I have my browser set to drop cookies except for whitelisted sites.) However, some of the features are not working under this setup, like a sports feature I clicked on and the Big Picture section.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    J.R., 25 May 2017 @ 11:07am

    Hmmmh

    Dear Boston Globe,

    F-U-2.

    Have a wonderful day without me. :-)

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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