Google’s latest version of Chrome is finally out, and version 76 of the browser has plenty of little features to improve your browsing experience: a new install button that appears in your address bar for progressive web apps, a new way to preference a website’s “dark mode” style if that’s how you prefer your browsing experience, and Flash blocked by default in the browser. It also makes avoiding paywalls easier - for now.
As we reported yesterday, Chrome has fixed up incognito mode, making it much more difficult for websites to tell you’re using it to access their content. Google’s changes make your shenanigans more difficult to block.
However, clever websites have already tweaked their setups to prevent you from getting a one-way ticket to free content—as they should.
How Google made Chrome’s incognito mode harder to detect
Chrome 76 fixes a little loophole that a number of sites around the web used to detect when you were running your browser in incognito mode. They would simply check to see if they could use Chrome’s Filesystem API. Since this didn’t work in incognito mode (in previous versions of chrome), the site could then deduce what you’re up to and respond accordingly. For example, The New York Times would drop a special overlay into news articles that would prevent you from getting free content using this trick:
Chrome 76 enables a special flag in your browser by default—“Filesystem API in Incognito”—that makes it impossible to tell if you’re running Incognito mode. Chrome’s adjustment hasn’t opened the floodgates for free content, however. Websites such as the aforementioned New York Times might not be able to stop you from looking at one free article, but they can certainly keep you out of the rest.
How websites are fighting back against incognito mode
Not to pick on the Times — it’s just the first example that comes to mind — but its website will now block you out of viewing articles with a big ol’ “register to read” overlay if you try to use incognito mode to view two items in a row. The overlay persists if you try to open a new tab and read more articles. (Nice try.)
The same was true when I tried to read more than three articles on The Washington Post, or even more than two articles on Medium. Get greedy, and you’re locked out no matter what kind of tweak Chrome uses to make incognito mode trickier to detect.
The incognito mode workaround is going to get very annoying
I hesitate to write about the workaround to websites blocking your incognito mode browsing, since I think this is a great compromise — you get a tiny amount for free if you need it, but you can’t just drink from the content firehose without obeying the site’s rules, signing up for an account, or paying for service. However, in the interests of fairness, you can reset this counter for any website if you completely close your incognito mode and reopen it.
Is stealing content wrong? Absolutely. Am I glad that a number of publishing websites are dialling their limits way, way down to address content theft? Absolutely.
I think the current system — one, maybe two free articles per session — is fair way to handle an impossible situation, one that allows people to access content while preventing abuse of incognito mode. And even if you’re determined to do whatever it takes to read everything online without paying for it, having to stop your reading, close your browser, reopen your browser, load the website, and click on new article after new article is going to get very old, very fast.
What’s less annoying? Paying a coffee’s worth of money each month to read everything you want. Try that, and save incognito mode for when you’re on a friend’s computer and you can’t remember your favourite news site’s login.