A website designed to help internet users get around paywalls has begun asking those users to subscribe to cover its costs.
The tool, 12ft, allows people to avoid paying subscriptions to access news and academic journals that restrict who can read them.
Paywalls are a popular method of ensuring subscriptions within the news industry, partly due to the industry losing an growing share of the advertising market to the “de-facto duopoly” of Google and Facebook.
The tool’s creator, Thomas Millar, claims to have created it at the beginning of the COVID pandemic when he was doing research and found that eight of the top 10 links on Google were paywalled.
His tool works by effectively reconfiguring the user’s web browser so it appears to be a Google crawler. Sites will often share their full text with Google to achieve a higher ranking in Google Search.
Because his tool doesn’t actually modify the paywalled website, just the visitor’s browser, it would not be considered an offence under the Computer Misuse Act.
What is the tool for?
Mr Millar does not say he wants to prevent news organisations from generating subscription revenues, though this is the ultimate effect of his tool.
He said: “I believe Google Adwords killed the web. Google Adwords incentivised sites to peddle SEO optimised garbage… Search results now show ‘news’, ads, and SEO spam instead of surfacing information.”
Despite the criticisms of low-quality content appearing in Google Search, 12ft advertises itself on the basis of working “with your favourite websites” and shows as an example the tool removing the paywall for the Economist.
Mr Millar is now asking people to voluntarily subscribe for $12 (£8) a month to cover his tool’s costs. The Economist offers digital subscriptions at £17.90 a month, which fund its journalism.
In a statement regarding the tool’s future, Mr Millar wrote: “Y’all are getting expensive. Bandwidth costs are getting high. Help keep the site online by purchasing a subscription to 12ft Pro.
“What does it get you? Honestly, not much currently. We have a small Chrome extension that provides some conveniences for you while using 12ft.
“I’m working on it. It’s my mission to clean the web, and I have big plans. Your $12 will go to funding the development of a better version of 12ft and to keeping the current service online.”
Mr Millar did not respond to Sky News when asked if he would consider adding a paywall to 12ft so the service was only used by paying subscribers.