Keeping out the Masses: Understanding the Popularity and Implications of Internet Paywalls

Funding the production of quality online content is a pressing problem for content producers. The most common funding method, online advertising, is rife with well-known performance and privacy harms, and an intractable subject-agent conflict: many users do not want to see advertisements, depriving the site of needed funding.

Because of these negative aspects of advertisement-based funding, paywalls are an increasingly popular alternative for websites. This shift to a “pay-for-access” web is one that has potentially huge implications for the web and society. Instead of a system where information (nominally) flows freely, paywalls create a web where high quality information is available to fewer and fewer people, leaving the rest of the web users with less information, that might be also less accurate and of lower quality. Despite the potential significance of a move from an “advertising-but-open” web to a “paywalled” web, we find this issue understudied.

This work addresses this gap in our understanding by measuring how widely paywalls have been adopted, what kinds of sites use paywalls, and the distribution of policies enforced by paywalls. A partial list of our findings include that (i) paywall use has increased, and at an increasing rate (2× more paywalls every 6 months), (ii) paywall adoption differs by country (e.g., 18.75% in US, 12.69% in Australia), (iii) paywall deployment significantly changes how users interact with the site (e.g., higher bounce rates, less incoming links), (iv) the median cost of an annual paywall access is 108 USD per site, and (v) paywalls are in general trivial to circumvent.

Finally, we present the design of a novel, automated system for detecting whether a site uses a paywall, through the combination of runtime browser instrumentation and repeated programmatic interactions with the site. We intend this classifier to augment future, longitudinal measurements of paywall use and behavior.