‘BreakThe Paywall’ and watch Murdoch crumble

Posted: July 8, 2010 in Features

In the build up to The Times’ and Sunday Times’ audacious paywall move in June, both papers will be meticulously planning a business model that will generate much needed revenue while blocking those who aim to sidestep online charges. Now one savvy web developer has thrown another spanner into the works.

James Bourne, 45, an IT manager from Leicestershire, has created software which can be legally and freely downloaded enabling the public to break through paywalls set up by the Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal – and The Times is next on his hit list.

Available for Internet Explorer and soon, Firefox, BreakThePaywall works by deleting cookies employed by sites such as the FT which limit the number of free stories the user is given before hitting the paywall. Deleting cookies means the publisher’s site forgets how close the reader is to the ‘pay up’ threshold.

BreakThePaywall challenges Google’s First-Click-Free scheme where newspaper publishers allow access via Google to get high up on the search ratings yet still charge users for subscription after they exceed a certain amount of free viewing on their site.

“As I saw something that was allowing certain amounts of access that then cuts you off I realised there was something wrong with that. You just can’t do that technically,” says Bourne.

“I looked at it a further and realised that it wasn’t just incompetence on their part as to why they were doing this – they were doing it deliberately to make money.

“These websites use techniques that Google describe as ‘cloaking’ whereby the website presents a different page to users than they present to the search index. The whole idea is to make sure your site is high in the search index results whilst charging for content and getting income from advertising.”

The FT and Wall Street Journal currently employ such techniques and The Times is set to mirror their business model offering a free trial, allowing a certain amount of access while cloaking Google content. Both rely on Google to send traffic their way yet still charge for online content. Usually Google will shut off websites from their index if they are found to use these techniques, but many websites are tolerated by Google if they allow access to the same page from their search results.

“I’m infuriated at the fact that such sites are advertising this paywall system to existing customers and new customers who are paying good money in the belief that they need to,” says Bourne.

 “A lot of their customers would be furious if they suddenly found out that it was accessible for free through Google or they could legally access it by simply changing cookies on their computer. All they are effectively paying for is single click access.  I just cannot see why they would do this as a business plan.”

Will Murdoch's paywall system pay off in a struggling market?

Bourne believes the underhand agreement between Google and online papers is a sign of things to come. Interestingly, Wall Street Journal does not allow Microsoft’s Bing search engine to cloak their content. As it is Wall Street Journal that implements whether a referring website such as Google gains access or not, this suggest its allegiance lies with Google rather than Bing or any other engine.

“I suppose it’s Google giving way a little to the companies which I’m very worried about. Everyone thinks Google is the be all and end all now. Google is becoming much more of a multinational company and the internet is going to start changing. There may be more and more of these deals behind closed doors going on.”

With such major implications for online newspapers’ finance, Bourne may well face a legal respite but insists what he is doing is legal.

“It’s frightening because I’m taking on the powers that be. I don’t see any legal ramifications because any of these methods that I’ve employed you can actually do yourself. You’re allowed to delete cookies – it’s your machine. You’re not doing anything wrong. In my view it’s the websites that are using that technology in the incorrect way that are the moral criminals.”

A number of media law firms failed to comment on the legality of BreakThePaywall, with many stating the case would not be within their jurisdiction. As Bourne’s methods still remain a grey area, it spurs calls for new legislation to clarify the matter.

While many law specialists give little legal clarification concerning BreakThePaywall, it is not the first program to test online news site security. Started in 2003, BugMeNot.com allowed users to dodge subscription sites by simply borrowing someone else’s login. This spawned many other sites which use these modern methods to give relief to users who are angry at the increasing clamp down on free content.

The belief that online news should be free long predates such ideals in today’s technological playing field. Since the dawn of the internet, academics alike have shared a view that internet content should be free of charge. The internet was first developed as an academic tool between universities such as MIT, Stanford and UCLA in the ‘70s.

When the first commercial service providers went live in the late ‘70s there was outrage in the academic community that their project was being used to make money. And so the battle began. Now newspapers are facing a bigger challenge than academics who are peeved at the media stripping the sanctity of their sacred internet. How do they stop web hackers and software developers from stealing their content – lawfully or unlawfully?

Mindy McAdams is a journalist, lecturer and leading web developer at the University of Florida who has been studying new media journalism for over a decade.

“I expect The Times will soon react by getting their programmers to write new codes to block the programming used by BreakThePaywall.com,” argues McAdams.

“Then BreakThePaywall will change its code. The news sites will change theirs again and again. And so on. Eventually, Bourne will probably give up. If he does not, then the news sites might seek serious redress in the courts.”

Mindy McAdams, a leading academic at the University of Florida

While some may view BreakThePaywall as a useful tool against companies trying to milk the cash cow, McAdams is a firm believer in the sanctity of online journalism and its need for revenue to continue.

“I do believe news is a public good but you have to be practical. I know a newspaper can’t produce news and pay journalists unless they have income. The wonderful idea that news belongs to the public falls on its face. Journalists can’t work for free when they have families to feed.

“Currently online advertising is not generating enough revenue to pay for the journalists so these companies are simply trying to find another way to bring in income in order to produce the product. They have to make money in a normal capitalistic way.”

Newspapers declining readership means lower ad revenue forcing them to find other ways to generate money

When questioned on how The Times plans to deal with the torrent of web hackers and developers like Bourne who will relentlessly try to find cracks within their paywall, it remained secretive.

A spokesperson for The Times Online stated: “As the website is still yet to be launched, this type of information cannot be divulged.”

It can only be speculated that The Times remains silent to prevent developers producing new and advanced software aimed to break the paywall. Yet one thing is for certain. Whatever paywall it erects to prop up a struggling newspaper market, there will always be those who are ready to break through the cracks. Newspapers are a dying industry desperately in need of a fresh and solid business model, and if The Times fail to provide tight online security, Murdoch will inevitably be watching his paywall crumble at his feet.

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