The New York Times Playing Whac-a-Loophole Over Paywall? Let Us Count the Ways

Following its paywall (payfence?) announcement, Gray Lady readers across the web have discovered a number of loopholes. Now the Times has moved in to close them.



The New York Times‘s looming mighty paywall, which is live in Canada and goes operational in the U.S. in five days, has sprung some leaks–a few of them self-inflicted. As Times readers across the web have scrambled to find ways around and through the wall, the Gray Lady has responded. Here are the loopholes we’ve heard of so far:

1. The Javascript hack

The loophole: Joshua Benton at Nieman Journalism Lab noticed the other day that, as he put it, “when you reach your 20-article limit and try to read more, the contraband article actually loads just fine in your browser”–it’s merely obscured by an overlay urging you to pony up. The overlay was just “a little CSS and Javascript,” he noted, and a simple browser extension could be used to strip the bit of policing code. Then, Canadian coder David Hayes did just that, putting out something called “NYTClean,” a simple button that you can find here and drag into your browser bar.

The response: Forbes asked the Times about “NYTClean,” and they responded through a spokeswoman: “As we have said previously, as with any paid product, we expect that
there will be some percentage of people who will find ways around our
digital subscriptions. We will continue to monitor the situation but
plan no changes to the programming or paywall structure in advance of
our global launch on March 28th.”

2. The Bing exception


The loophole: In its initial announcement, the Times said that while it would still, of course, allow people to access linked stories through Google, “[t]here will, however, be a five-article limit a day for people who visit the site from Google.” Just Google? What, people began wondering, about Bing? Initially, this seemed like a leg up for the Microsoft search engine underdog.

The response: Until it wasn’t. The five-per-day Google loophole was soon extended to Bing and Yahoo. Indeed, said a spokesperson, it will apply to “the majority of search engines.” That was easy.

3. The cookie monster

The loophole: Former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal Online, which has a paywall, Bill Grueskin of the Columbia Journalism School posted on paidContent about potential ways around the wall. First, he wrote: “According to sources close to the situation, the 20-story limit can be breached if you access the site from multiple devices, and/or if you delete your cookies.”

The response: This theory hasn’t been tested yet, and the Times doesn’t appear to have responded to this particular loophole. But Grueskin himself points out that the Times could respond easily, since at any point it could change the 20-story limit (shrinking it to zero, say), or begin tying usage to a username rather than a device.


4. The Twitter con

The loophole: Since social media is such a huge traffic driver, NYT put in an exception on links from Twitter and Facebook. Only, some clever Twitterer decided to exploit this loophole to the fullest, setting up a Twitter feed called @freeNYTimes, dedicated solely to mining links to recent NYT stories. As of a few minutes ago, it already had 2,092 tweets. The account appears to be the automated work of a clever programmer.

The response: That wasn’t cool with the Times. It’s lobbying Twitter to shutter the account.

Surely there are more loopholes out there–comment below if you’re aware of any–and surely the Times will extend more fingers to plug them.

Playing spot-the-vulnerability is fun and all, but in the meantime, why don’t you just decide to help support one of the world’s great newspapers? As some have noted, you can even get digital-access-plus-the-Sunday-print-edition cheaper than digital access alone. Wallets out!


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[Image: Flickr user Andrew Dupont]

About the author

David Zax is a contributing writer for Fast Company. His writing has appeared in many publications, including Smithsonian, Slate, Wired, and The Wall Street Journal