Why Break Paywalls?

Published at 12:54 on 7 May 2021

Why did I break a paywall in that most recent post? Let me show you the pop-up that appears:

Can you spot the sleaze?

Notice how there is no one-shot option to pay a buck or two, get a site pass for a day or two (or even just access to a single page), then walk away, without any future commitment whatsoever. No, I must give them billing information and agree to be billed monthly. Sure, I may “cancel anytime,” but what that really means is that I can forget to cancel before my first month is up, and get zinged for another few months before I wake up and cancel.

Contrast that with your typical magazine selection in a store. You can take any magazine you wish, pay the price on the cover, and walk out of the store without making any further commitments. The publisher has no idea that you, personally, purchased their publication. They can not bill you in the future.

The unreasonableness of most paywalled sites can be made clear by contrast: What would a store that follows a similar policy be like? First, the magazine is behind a counter, and you are not allowed to so much as touch it by default. “No, sir, we will not hand you this magazine unless you first agree to furnish us with billing information so that we can continue billing you as new issues come out. You are of course free to cancel at any time.”

We would think that store was a pure sleaze operation, and we would be correct.

The Web needs micropayments. It needs to be easy to pay for things on a one-off, piecemeal basis, with no future commitments. It is not just newspapers and magazines that would be improved by this, either. Imagine what social networking would be like if it was easy to use on a pay-as-you-go basis: it would be based on a transaction between two parties, with much less temptation to do all the profiling and data-selling that today’s social networks depend on.

Until and unless things become less unreasonable, I and many others will continue to try and find ways to circumvent the unreasonableness.

As an aside, in many cases, circumventing paywalls really is not that hard. Business Insider, for example, relies on client-side scripting to implement its paywall, so all I had to do was launch a user agent that had no support for JavaScript, and I was in. The page looked a little odd, but the article text was still readable.

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