Google's Updated Incognito Mode May Break Paywalls

John Lister's picture

Google is changing the way its "incognito" mode works. It says the move is necessary, but some news and magazine website owners are upset by the change.

Incognito is Google's version of private browsing. Despite the name, it's mainly about privacy on the user's device: when in incognito mode, the local browser stops adding websites to its browsing history, which consists of a list of pages the user has visited and the searches they've carried out.

The mode won't stop the activity being recorded by an Internet service provider (ISP) or by a local network administrator - something that has unstuck employees who have relied on the mode to conceal inappropriate browsing at work.

Paywall Limits Free Article Views

The issue is how Incognito mode works with websites that is now being changed.

Normally a site is able to use cookies and similar methods to check whether a user has visited the site before. That's of particular use to news sites using a "paywall", which lets people read a set number of articles each week or month free of charge before they must register or subscribe to see any more.

Chrome uses something called "FileSystem API" to let websites access data on the computer itself. In Incognito mode the FileSystem API is disabled, which prevents websites from adding any cookies or other data that could undermine the point of private browsing.

Some websites have been using this as a loophole, however. First, they check to see if FileSystem API is disabled and, if so, stop the visitor reading any articles at all until the user registers or subscribes. (Source:

Google Says Privacy is Key

With the next Chrome update which is due next week, the method of checking whether FileSystem API is enabled simply won't work any longer.

For example, it could mean that sites using the paywall model will have to choose between blocking all users from seeing any free articles, or accepting that people in Incognito mode can bypass the paywall restrictions.

While that's bad news for some sites, Google says "any approach based on private browsing detection undermines the principles of Incognito Mode." It says it's more important to make sure private browsing modes really do work, for example to protect victims of domestic abuse who need to be able to get help online without the risk of their abusers finding out. (Source:

What's Your Opinion?

Is it ethical to use Incognito mode to get round restrictions on how many free articles you can read? Has Google made the right choice with this change? How do you think websites will respond to the change?

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Average: 4.8 (6 votes)


Dennis Faas's picture

There are other ways to keep track of whether a user has read X amount of pages. That can easily be done if users are forced to login - in which case, cookies would have to be enabled. If cookies aren't enabled (due to Incognito mode, for example), then the website can display a message stating users must login to view content. While this defeats the purpose of limiting free content without any commitment by the user (such as creating a user account), implementing a paywall can still be done, albeit somewhat clunky.

buzzallnight's picture

I have never paid for anything,
or computers since the beginning of computers,
I am not about to start now!!!!!!!!!!!!