Keeping Out the Masses: Understanding the Popularity and Implications of Internet Paywalls
Panagiotis Papadopoulos, Peter Snyder, Benjamin Livshits | Privacy
Funding the production and distribution of quality online content is an open problem for content producers. Selling subscriptions to content, once considered passe, has been growing in popularity recently. Decreasing revenues from digital advertising, along with increasing ad fraud, have driven publishers to “lock” their content behind paywalls, thus denying access to non-subscribed users. How much do we know about the technology that may obliterate what we know as free web? What is its prevalence? How does it work? Is it better than ads when it comes to user privacy? How well is the premium content of publishers protected? In this study, we aim to address all the above by building a paywall detection mechanism and performing the first full-scale analysis of real-world paywall systems. Our results show that the prevalence of paywalls across the top sites in Great Britain reach 4.2%, in Australia 4.1%, in France 3.6% and globally 7.6%. We find that paywall use is especially pronounced among news sites, and that 33.4% of sites in the Alexa 1k ranking for global news sites have adopted paywalls. Further, we see a remarkable 25% of paywalled sites outsourcing their paywall functionality (including user tracking and access control enforcement) to third-parties. Putting aside the significant privacy concerns, these paywall deployments can be easily circumvented, and are thus mostly unable to protect publisher content.
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