Paywall Pass for Firefox bypasses paywalls on popular sites

Martin Brinkmann
Jun 11, 2015
Updated • Jun 11, 2015

Some sites, in an effort to increase reader subscriptions and revenue, have implemented so called paywall systems on their sites or parts of their sites.

Popular news sites such as the Wall Street Journal Online or the New York Times Online have implemented these paywalls.

Subscription information are displayed after a certain number of articles have been accessed on a site usually.

While implementations differ, most use various means to track access, for instance by using cookies.

What most sites have in common as well is that they allow search engines (and often other popular news aggregators) unrestricted access to contents.

The Firefox add-on Paywall Pass takes advantage of that by changing the value of the referal header to a search engine.

Doing so makes the site believe that a search engine is visiting so that access is granted to contents that would otherwise not be available.


Please note that this won't block ads or announcements regarding the paywall or subscriptions. On the New York Times website for instance, you will receive notifications about subscriptions.

When that happens, and it will after reading ten articles on the site, you simply hit the extension button in Firefox's main toolbar to fake the referer and read the contents offered on that page.

Note: I have tried the extension on numerous sites. It worked without issues on for instance but not properly on the New York Times website. It is suggested to use other means to access sites it won't work on, for instance to use private browsing mode to read articles.

The extension works in a semi-automated fashion. Whenever you encounter a paywall, usually in form of a subscription prompt that hides the article you are interested in, you click on the extension icon to make it do its magic.

It changes the referer in the background and reloads the page afterwards. If all goes well, the article should show up now so that you can read it. In case it does not, you need to find another way to read the article.

The extension should work on all sites you visit which you can test on sites that check the browser's referer. Since it works on those when activated, it should work on all other sites you activate it on.

Closing Words

Paywall Pass is a useful extension as it grants access to articles that are blocked by online magazines. You have plenty of other options to access contents behind a paywall though, for instance by loading a cached version of an article using a search engine like Google, by using private browsing mode, or clearing cookies regularly.

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  1. k said on February 19, 2018 at 6:47 am

    The Wall Street Journal is often used as an example to show effectiveness of these sorts of extensions, but they basically don’t work on sites that have a real paywall. In other words, the WSJ has a weak one and most, if not all, of these extensions will wor on the WSJ.

  2. Hans van Aken said on June 19, 2015 at 2:23 pm

    Found out why Paywall Pass did not download and sent a compatibility report to Mozilla:

    The usage of the add-on is somewhat complicated as you have to use a search machine
    for every article you want to be passed.
    Unfortunately it did not work with my home newspapers (Aachener Zeitung, Aachener
    Nachrichten). I’ll try further, perhaps there was a mistake on my side.

  3. Hans van Aken said on June 15, 2015 at 11:15 am

    I’d love to have that Add-On, but it won’t download at all. Perhaps some lawyers paid by
    online newspapers forced Mozilla to withdraw it in some countries (i.e. Germany)?
    Does anybody know something about that and experienced the same problem?

  4. neo269 said on June 14, 2015 at 7:43 am

    Do we have Chrome Version for this addon ?

  5. Dave said on June 12, 2015 at 12:06 pm

    I would have been surprised if it worked on The Times, and it doesn’t. Guess I’ll continue to ponder a subscription…

  6. batman said on June 12, 2015 at 11:55 am

    adblockers and cutting out paywalls, yet worried about revenue going down on ghacks….

    1. DonGateley said on June 12, 2015 at 10:21 pm

      I don’t think Martin ever reprimanded or dissed folks for using blockers but rather asked people to specifically help him out by disabling them for his site. He was just soliciting support which is much different from requiring it.

    2. Martin Brinkmann said on June 12, 2015 at 12:21 pm

      So what is your suggestion? Not review those programs? Ignore them and hope that no one finds them? It is still up to the individual user to either use them or not.

      1. batman said on June 12, 2015 at 4:07 pm

        valid points, i just thought as a publisher yourself, who struggle with making a profit, would at least mention why paywalls are there in the first place.

      2. Martin Brinkmann said on June 12, 2015 at 4:49 pm

        Hm, never thought about it from that perspective. I’m not opposed to paywalls actually, but ignore sites that use them for the most part, especially if they tease you with excerpts and when you open the site you hit the paywall. That’s bad I think.

  7. insanelyapple said on June 12, 2015 at 11:15 am

    Seems it does works on paywalled sites in my country as well – thank you Martin!

  8. br0adband said on June 12, 2015 at 8:22 am

    I look at it this way: I do use ad-blocking addons/extensions with Firefox (primarily just uBlock Origin nowadays, in the past it was Ad-Block Plus with the Element Hiding Helper, etc) but only on sites that I visit perhaps one or two times. If it’s a site where I know the content is useful (like Ghacks, for instance) I’ll whitelist the site as soon as I make that determination – I have no issues with supporting sites [i]that provide me with useful content[/i]. Having said that, if a site – say for example Tom’s Hardware – basically sets up their content delivery aka their web pages in such a way where they take a 10 paragraph article and split it into 10 web pages (seriously) and put one paragraph of info on the page which covers like 10 percent of it and the rest of the page is 80-85% adds and 5-10% navigation (depending) then I don’t have any issues with blocking ads on a site like that – and I rarely ever go back to such sites as well.

    I’ve been on “this Internet thing” since early 1991 (about 2 years before the US Government ceded primary control of it to Internic) and been “online” since 1977 at a whopping 50 baud – it was so slow my typing would regularly overload the keyboard buffer on the hardware I was using. I’m not saying that to impress anyone; the intention is to basically cover the ground and say “I’ve seen pretty much everything there is to see online as time has progressed.” Ads are a fact of life, I get that, and I don’t have issues with ads on sites [i]that provide useful content.[/i] I don’t even have trouble making donations or even *GASP* paying for content if it’s really that useful and worth coming back to.

    Tom’s Hardware is a site that started long ago – it wasn’t the first tech site out there but it was one of the earliest – and they did a great job covering all the technical geek stuff that someone like me was interested in. They provided useful content at a ratio of like 90 to 10 (percentage wise): 90% of their pages was content, with an ad or two here and there and they also didn’t do that “split a little content into bite-sized paragraphs and spam the pages with ads to make more revenue.”

    But one day they did start doing that and that’s when I stopped bothering with the site. Tom basically “sold out” as the saying goes and the ads became totally intrusive and drowned out the actual content you went their for.

    I get why sites do that, but if you’re going so far as to take a page of information (literally one single typed page of text content) and then break it down into paragraph or even half-paragraph sized chunks and then spam that over multiple pages that have vastly more ads than content, you can be safe knowing I won’t visit your site often (if at all) and when I do yes I will have an ad-blocker on. Sorry, but that’s just how it goes.

    As for this add-on, I won’t install it – and it’s not because I wouldn’t find it useful. I won’t install it because I don’t visit paywall sites to begin with especially if I see the link beforehand. Newspaper and magazine sites like WSJ and Time will always be there to charge for content, that’s a given. But if I want their content I’ll head to a Barnes & Noble or something and pick up the physical copy.

    I’m weird, yes, but I’ll bet I’m not alone in this line of thinking. :)

    Yes this is a lot of text in this post, just noticed it after submission – now imagine having to read this post of mine spread across 9-10 pages and each page has just one paragraph of the post with 10 ads on the page and you’ll get an idea of just how bad Tom’s Hardware and many other websites happen to be.

    1. Tom Hawack said on June 12, 2015 at 10:27 am

      You’re not weird, br0adband, but honest and, IMO, wise. You have a background, experience, and you state your truth quietly.

      Advertizement, and now tracking (let’s leave aside malware, even if malvertizement is a know problem) are accepted by many as a fact of modern life. Period. Here we have a choice : either be intransigent with ads either, as you do, consider a per-domain attitude and decide of your ad-blocking attitude consequently. I admit (I say “admit” because your comment could make me feel ashamed) my ad-blocking policy is intransigent. Why? Because I consider advertizement nowadays as a crazy machine which understands nothing but a battle. Whatever we do, say, propose – us, users – to open a dialog with the ad business, the answer is always the same : You want less, less intrusive and better ads? Here, take this. “This” is advertizement inflation. Dialog is impossible with that business. I recall an article published, don’t remember, perhaps 20 years ago, in Time magazine I think, where studies showed that the same ad efficiency could be obtained with half of the ads volume at that time. Nothing changed. I even know some who say that it’s not the ads’ business advantage to create too performing ads when less efficient call for more…

      So, of course, we are facing, especially on the Web, a cruel dilemma. I am as well. I have several friends who state “Well, if a site cannot manage without ads, let them die or choose a business plan (payed articles?) which doesn’t hold the user and the client as hostages of the advertizement business. I am not into these extremes. I believe as you there must be a solution. But this solution requires honest mentalities on both sides and i see none on the business’s side. None.

      Status quo? Sometimes pragmatism can become a valid policy. I’ll be dealing with my consciousness when I state that, in consideration of the mass of users — worldwide, this is planetary or what is? — there is a place for all, that is for those as me who are intransigent (at this time) with the ad business, those who adopt a per-domain policy, and those who just don’t care and/or bother. This is also liberalism, when liberalism spends its time saying “let it be”, and no doubt that liberalism will let the natural laws of life and attitudes’ deployment be. otherwise it wouldn’t be liberalism, would it? Rather business dictatorship, who would dare think such a thing?

  9. Boo_Guy said on June 12, 2015 at 7:09 am

    Most websites that I’ve used that let you read so many articles for free then throw up a paywall are easily defeated by deleting the sites cookies from your computer, no addon needed.

  10. interstellar said on June 12, 2015 at 5:52 am

    addon installed ok
    on my Samsung Tablet Galaxy TAB3
    (Android 4.2.2 – 10.1 inch screen).

    But, the addon “green icon”
    does not appear in the Firefox browser…
    (latest FF version for Android).

    Without this “green icon”,
    this Firefox addon is non-functional
    in Android tablets and phones…

    Is it not available for Firefox
    in Android?
    (although it installed ok…).

  11. tinwheeler said on June 12, 2015 at 4:48 am

    Martin, using FF39. Paywall Pass site says not compatible with FF 28

    1. VBG45 said on June 14, 2015 at 2:03 pm

      This add-on apparently is not compatible with all versions of Pale Moon at all. If you are a user of this browser or FF <38, try a compatible referrer-spoofing add-on.

  12. theMike said on June 12, 2015 at 1:51 am

    worked perfectly on my local paper. good find

  13. Anthony said on June 11, 2015 at 11:39 pm

    Does anyone agree, potentially, this is considered hacking and illegal?

    1. Dave said on June 12, 2015 at 12:04 pm

      Illegal where?

    2. Martin Brinkmann said on June 12, 2015 at 7:56 am

      I doubt that this is classified as hacking. You can achieve the same result by searching for the article on Google or Bing, clicking on the link to read it in full.

    3. abcdef said on June 12, 2015 at 12:06 am

      Here is a comment from reddit

      “Websites aren’t supposed to be presenting one version of a page to a search engine and another version to human visitors. I don’t have a problem exploiting an exploiter.”

      1. ams said on June 12, 2015 at 5:03 am

        Hmm, I hold mixed feelings on the topic of bypassing paywalls.

        In this case, I don’t believe we can safely/rightly demand “page shouldn’t be showing a different version to search engines”. In the future, I hope search engine results entries will visibly callout which items are “fully accessible by subscribers only”… and, perhaps, provide an option/filter to exclude such from a given search result.

        Publication of each WSJ article triggers a WAVE of “me too” articles (spinners, paraphrasers, highlights reels) across thousands of sites. Go ahead, test my claim ~~ choose a WSJ article and, using a longish sentence snipped from the article (and/or the headlline, verbatim), recheck google search repeatedly across the span of the following 2 days. Within 18hrs, you’ll see literally thousands of “me too” articles/summaries have been published, have been indexed, and are available via google search results. For this reason, when researching a published story, it’s often important to employ a time-based filter. I’m fairly confident that google _is_ already placing considerable ranking importance on an item’s comparative time of publication. (As in, “who published it first?”) Here, I’m underscoring my point that we _need_ search engines to have immediate access, regardless whether we’re blocked by a paywall when we arrive at the linked site.

  14. Jacob said on June 11, 2015 at 9:29 pm

    I learnt about Ad Blockers from your site. Thanks for telling us about Paywall Bypassers too ;)

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