NYT’s $50 million ‘paywall’ crumbles with simple code exploit

By Stephen C. Webster
Wednesday, March 23, 2011 13:47 EDT
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Want to stay up-to-date with The New York Times? It used to be as simple as keying up nytimes.com. Today though, with a new “paywall” that denies access to new stories to non-subscribers, avid news junkies far and wide are facing a future where information comes at an increasingly high price.

In fact, the Times is counting on that very outcome, and they’ve spent as much as $50 million building their online subscription package, according to Bloomberg.

With such a hefty sum behind their plan to charge for access to the news, executives at the Times might be a little more than peeved today, now that a simple Javascrpit exploit has been found that can smash right through the wall.

All it takes is four lines of text, and down it falls.

The Times paywall is supposed to work by limiting readers to just 20 articles per month. Once that limit is reached, attempting to click on a story will generate a graphical overlay that covers up the text and solicits a subscription.

But in spite of all the money the paper spent building this system, simply right clicking the page behind the overlay and selecting “inspect element” in their web browser will reveal the story’s text, as illustrated by the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University.

Noting this, one programmer devised a simple exploit that strips off the Times‘s costly paywall entirely.

Called “NYTClean,” the developer says he came up with it one day at lunch. It acts as a bookmark in any browser: simply drag-and-drop the link into your bookmarks bar, pull up a Times story and, if the system blots it out, click your “NYTClean” and it vanishes just like that.

“Wow, I’ve gotten thousands tens of thousands of hits since this went up yesterday, especially considering this was a lunchtime project,” the developer wrote. “You just can’t see a wall like this without wondering how you can get around it. I love the New York Times, don’t say that I forced you to not pay for it.”

“As we have said previously, as with any paid product, we expect that there will be some percentage of people who will find ways around our digital subscriptions,” The Times told Forbes blogger Jeff Bercovici yesterday. “We will continue to monitor the situation but plan no changes to the programming or paywall structure in advance of our global launch on March 28th.”

The paywall is currently only active in Canada. The Times has already taken action against a Twitter account that’s been using an exploit to freely share their stories on social media.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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