Editors Note: As of 12/4/12, 12 Foot is back in business as an “ad blocker” with lots of language about using the tool for legal, non-copyright purposes. It’s reported the owner was taken offline due to complaints to their DNS and hosting provider from publishers and others.
In the ever-evolving digital landscape, online paywalls have become a common strategy for media outlets to monetize their content. On October 31, 2023, a prominent paywall bypass service, 12ft Ladder, went dark. This service allowed users to access paywalled content for free by mimicking search engine crawlers. 12ft Ladder retrieved cached web-crawled versions of websites to access unrestricted content.
While 12ft Ladder may no longer be in operation, the underlying issue of paywall circumvention by individuals who do not want to pay for the content they want to read is still very real. Paywall Bypassers are creative and how they get around paywalls is ever-evolving. Given this, we decided to dive into other ways consumers are accessing paid content to help you understand the tools and issues involved.
Understanding Paywall Bypass:
Paywall bypass involves techniques that allow users to access premium content behind paywalls without subscribing or paying. In the case of 12ft Ladder, it used a clever tactic of posing as a search engine crawler, exploiting the access granted to legitimate search engines. This method raised significant challenges for publishers who rely on subscription and advertising revenue to sustain their operations with some more technically sophisticated publishers such as Bloomberg and The New York Times blocking them.
The unauthorized access to premium content not only affects a business’s revenue but also undermines the very foundation of digital publishing including:
- Revenue Loss: Paywall circumvention can directly impact a business’s bottom line. With users accessing content for free, subscription and advertising revenues may decline.
- Content Devaluation: Paywalls are in place to ensure that quality content is valued and monetized. Bypassing paywalls devalues the content and discourages users from paying for access.
- Business Viability: For media outlets that rely on digital subscriptions, paywall bypass poses a threat to their sustainability. A decline in revenue can jeopardize the viability of their operations.
20 Ways Consumers Bypass Paywalls
To help you and your team understand the challenge, we cover 20 ways that users are getting around paywalls. These offer different approaches to bypassing paywalls, highlighting the ongoing challenges businesses face in protecting their content. Understanding these methods can help you take steps to protect your valuable content and subscription model.
- Virtual Private Networks (VPN): Paywalls from publications like The Washington Post and The Weather Channel often limit access based on users’ IP addresses. A VPN allows users to change their IP addresses, granting them unrestricted access to articles. By switching to a different server on the VPN, users can effectively reset article limits.
- Proxy Server: Proxy servers, similar to VPNs, create new IP addresses for users to bypass paywalls. This method is effective for soft paywalls and should be noted by businesses looking to maintain their content’s exclusivity.
- Incognito Window: Incognito mode can be a thorn in the side of paywalls that rely on cookies to track user visits. By opening a browser in Incognito mode, users start with a clean slate, preventing previous cookies from affecting their access and allowing them to read articles without restrictions.
- Deleting Browser Cookies: Consumers manually delete or block cookies to overcome paywalls that rely on cookie tracking. Although this approach doesn’t work for subscription-based sites, it can help readers access more articles on other websites.
- Reader Mode: Some soft paywalls can be bypassed by switching to reader mode in web browsers. While this method might not be effective for major publications, it’s a technique consumers often try before exploring other avenues. Consumers trying this method often try to click on “reader mode” prior to the paywall being presented.
- Incoggo: Incoggo is an ad blocker for paywalls that lets individuals freely access their favorite websites and articles from various premium publications.
- Remove Paywall: The purpose of Remove Paywall is to remove paywalls from articles to access them without logging in or paying. To get started with the tool, input the URL of the target article into Remove Paywall’s search bar and leave the rest to the app.
- PayWall Blocker: PayWall Blocker is a Chrome extension that hides web articles behind a paywall on the overview pages.
- Wayback Machine: The Wayback Machine provides access to archived versions of websites, whether or not they were originally behind paywalls. This method works for sites allowing web crawlers and offers a way for consumers to access content.
- Bypass Paywalls Clean (App): A Firefox browser extension known as “Bypass Paywalls Clean” enables users to navigate paywalls with relative ease. While it might raise some ethical concerns, it’s crucial for businesses to be aware of such extensions and their potential impact and try to block them.
- Bypass Paywalls Extension: Some consumers install Chrome extensions in developer mode to circumvent paywalls. Businesses should consider the implications of this method and remain vigilant.
- Readium: Readium is an open-source Chrome extension that allows users to skip paywalls and click-entry ways. They claim is works on web-based magazines such as Business Insider, Bloomberg, Medium, Towards Data Science, and The New York Times.
Reader Mode: Reader Mode is a Chrome extension and web app that removes ads, clutter, and distractions to view your favorite articles without interruptions. It removes soft paywalls (overlays and popups), by stripping website designs.
- uBlock Origin Ad Blocker: Users can create custom uBlock Origin filters to bypass paywalls effectively. This versatile method can also help block paywall pop-ups, and businesses should be mindful of its use.
- Bardeen: Bardeen, an automation tool, offers web archive content and mimics Google web crawlers, enabling access to content on select sites.
- Create iOS Shortcuts: iOS users have the ability to create shortcuts using social media referral links to access your content for free. This technique works well for select subscription-based sites and can be set up using Apple’s Shortcuts app
- iOS Shortcuts (App): Apple’s iOS Shortcuts app, combined with Unpaywall, can help users bypass paywalls on select websites. While it might only sometimes work, businesses should be vigilant about these emerging techniques.
- Tor Browser: The Tor Browser allows users to browse the internet anonymously, making it an attractive option for readers seeking payment-restricted content. Users can start a new browsing session with a fresh identity when they encounter a soft paywall.
- Facebook URL: Consumers can access content behind soft paywalls by adding “https://facebook.com/l.php?u=” before an article’s link. This simple technique is effective against soft paywalls and should be considered by businesses seeking to protect their premium content.
- Unpaywall: Unpaywall is focused on scholarly articles. It allows users to access full-text scholarly articles.
- Txtify.it: Enter a URL into Txtify.it and the tool will convert a webpage to text. Certain soft paywalls can be bypassed using this.
- PayWall Demolisher: PayWall Demolisher is a Chrome extension that enables users to read content from many paid articles without encountering paywalls.
- Libraries: Finally, while not a tool specifically for bypassing paywalls, make sure your business understands what people can and cannot access via their libraries. Many libraries use aggregators, and some individual licenses for access as well.
It’s an ongoing challenge, but awareness is the first step toward finding effective solutions to protect your premium content.
Tips to Protect Your Paywalled Content:
While the demise of 12ft Ladder may provide temporary relief, it’s essential for businesses to proactively safeguard their content. Here are some strategies to protect your paywalled content:
- Strengthen User Authentication: Implement robust user authentication processes to ensure that only paying subscribers have access to premium content.
- Implement Protection Measures: Implement robust anti-piracy and security measures to safeguard premium content.
- Encrypted Content Delivery: Explore content delivery methods that use encryption to protect against unauthorized access.
- Dynamic Paywalls: Consider dynamic paywalls that can adapt to user behavior and preferences, ensuring a balance between accessibility and monetization.
- Regular Audits: Conduct regular audits of your paywall systems to identify vulnerabilities and address them promptly.
- Expert Advice: Consider collaborating with anti-piracy and cybersecurity experts to better understand your businesses’ paywall vulnerability and enhance content protection efforts. This can be particularly helpful for those with limited in-house expertise.
The impact of paywall bypass techniques is significant and varies across different industries, with notable consequences for journalism, publishing, and content creation. Here’s a closer look at the broader implications:
- Declining Revenue: Paywall bypass techniques contribute to declining revenue for journalism outlets. Traditional newspapers, online news platforms, and investigative journalism websites often rely on subscription models and advertising revenue. When users can easily access content for free, it directly affects the financial sustainability of these outlets.
- Quality Journalism at Risk: Quality journalism depends on the revenue generated from subscriptions and advertising. Paywall bypass not only threatens the existence of some journalism outlets but also puts investigative and high-quality reporting in jeopardy. Reduced income leads to staff layoffs, budget cuts, and a decline in the quality of journalism.
- Impact on Journalists: Journalists’ job security and income are at risk due to the erosion of subscription and advertising revenue. With outlets struggling to sustain operations, it may lead to job cuts, making the journalism profession less attractive and potentially affecting the diversity of voices in the industry.
- Revenue Erosion: The publishing industry relies heavily on selling books, magazines, and other content. Paywall bypass techniques, such as accessing e-books or magazines without payment, reduce the revenue generated from these products. Publishers have to adapt by implementing stronger anti-piracy measures, which can increase operational costs.
- Reduced Investment: With decreasing revenue, publishers may reduce investments in new authors, quality content, and innovations. This ultimately limits the diversity and vibrancy of the publishing industry.
- Content Devaluation: Paywall bypass devalues content by making it readily available for free. For content creators, this can be demotivating, as they see their work being accessed without compensation. The perception that content has little or no value can discourage creators from producing high-quality material.
- Impact on Content Creators: Content creators, including writers, photographers, and artists, may experience decreased income and recognition as their work can be exploited without proper compensation. This affects the livelihood of creators and can lead to a loss of talent from the industry.
- Targeted Advertising Impact: In a world where more content is available for free, the effectiveness of targeted advertising, which relies on understanding user behavior and preferences, can be compromised. This can lead to reduced ROI for advertisers, affecting their investment in online advertising.
Software and Tech Industry:
- Anti-Piracy Measures: Paywall bypass challenges the software and tech industry to develop and implement robust anti-piracy measures. This can increase costs for software companies as they strive to protect their products from unauthorized distribution.
Paywall bypass techniques have far-reaching consequences for industries such as journalism, publishing, content creation, advertising, and the software and tech sector. These impacts are not limited to financial losses but also extend to the quality of content, job security, and the sustainability of these industries. Content creators and publishers are continuously adapting to protect their work, but the battle against paywall bypass remains an ongoing challenge.
As the digital landscape continues to evolve, the battle between content creators and paywall bypassers persists. Businesses must remain vigilant and proactive in defending their paywalled content to ensure their sustainability and the integrity of digital publishing. Understanding the mechanics of paywall bypass and implementing protective measures are essential steps in safeguarding premium content from unauthorized access. While the demise of 12ft Ladder offers a temporary respite, the need for content protection remains as pertinent as ever.