A new patch for the Google Chrome web browser fixes a bug that allows sites to detect and block users in “Incognito Mode,” a setting users often turn on when they don't want their history detected.
Called Chrome 76, the patch means publishers with metered paywalls will no longer be able to block users in Incognito Mode from accessing online content for free.
“Our news teams support sites with meter strategies and recognize the goal of reducing meter circumvention, however any approach based on private browsing detection undermines the principles of Incognito Mode,” Barb Palser, Google’s partner development manager of news and web partnerships, wrote in a blog post.
According to Google, “people may have important safety reasons for concealing their web activity,” such as avoiding political oppression or domestic abuse.
“We want you to be able to access the web privately, with the assurance your choice to do so is private, as well,” Palser wrote.
Metered paywalls keep track of how many articles a visitor has read in a month. They can cut off free access if a visitor exceeds that number. The visitor is then asked to subscribe. The New York Times, for example, allows five free articles a month, and The Washington Post allows non-subscribers to read three articles.
Incognito Mode triggers a pop-up on The Boston Globe's site that reads: “You’re using a browser set to private or incognito mode,” and asks the reader to log in to their Globe account to continue browsing in this mode.
Now, when browsing in Incognito Mode (similar to “Private Browsing” in Safari and Firefox), cookies and visited sites are not saved. Sites will not be able to track how many articles a visitor has read in that month.
Google suggests publishers can reduce the number of free articles someone can read before logging in, requiring free registration for users to view any content on a publisher's site or hardening paywalls.
Other sites, like Business Insider, will not be affected by the Chrome 76 patch, as its paywall does not limit the number of articles a reader can access. Instead, it puts a paywall on select stories exclusive to paying subscribers.