Culture

Wichita, KS developer fired for subverting the Kansas.com paywall

A local developer in Wichita, KS was fired after he released a Chrome extension that blocked The Wichita Eagle's paywall.

Adrianne Jeffries

Adrianne Jeffries

Photo: Andrea Allen/Flickr

When The Wichita Eagle instituted a paywall, local developer Chad Smith wrote a simple browser plug-in that users could install to keep reading the site for free.

He called it "Kansas.com Jailbreak," uploaded it to Google's Chrome extension store, tweeted the link, and got a few laughs out of friends.

He never thought it would get him fired.

For two years, no one noticed. But recently, the Eagle upgraded its paywall and Kansas.com Jailbreak stopped working. Users asked Smith for a new version, and he complied.

"People were complaining about the new @kansasdotcom paywall, so I fixed it," he tweeted, with a link to the new plug-in.

That was Tuesday of last week, while Smith was at work at Sullivan Higdon and Sink, an award-winning small ad agency. About 30 minutes after the tweet went out, Smith's boss stormed over to his desk: "What the fuck did you do?"

As it turns out, Wichita is a small town. The Eagle, convinced that Smith had hacked Kansas.com and taken down their entire payment system, was livid. Even though Smith hadn't put his company's name on the extension or his Twitter profile, the paper called his employer. "They literally thought I had disabled all functionality on their website," Smith said. Update: The paper denies there was a misunderstanding about the extent of Smith's interference. "At no time did anyone here ever think he had disabled the paywall or functionality of our website. That's just absurd," Sherry Chisenhall, editor and senior vice president of news at the paper, says in an email. "The issue was always the enabling, sharing and promoting of theft from our company." According to Smith, Sullivan Higdon and Sink continued to tell other employees that he had hacked the Eagle's website. 

Smith explained that he hadn't hacked anything. His plug-in didn't touch the site; it merely disabled the third-party Javascript. Users could have done the same thing in their browser settings.

Unfortunately, the damage was done. Despite its tagline, " we hate sheep," Sullivan Higdon and Sink proved to be pretty square. Smith had been chastised before for things he built on his own time, including a Google Glass app for logging into his bank, a prototype mobile website for another local company, and some light office trolling (ringing all the phones in the office simultaneously). This time, they fired him.

His bosses told him the Kansas.com Jailbreak incident constituted a "serious offense" and that he'd jeopardized the company's relationship with the newspaper and the community. (A representative for Sullivan Higdon and Sink did not respond to a request for comment.)

Smith says he only wrote Kansas.com Jailbreak because he thought the way the paywall was implemented—letting you read the article for a second, then blocking the content—was obnoxious.

He built the other apps that got him in trouble because he thought they improved the user experience. "As a developer and hacker, I try to look at what could be made better," Smith says. (He also admits to being "a bit of a prankster.")

A tool for subverting a paywall could be considered an illegal "circumvention device" under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, but that argument has never been tried in court.

When The New York Times put up a paywall in 2011, a Canadian coder named Dave Hayes spent his lunch break subverting it. He released NYTClean, a button users could click in their browser's bookmarks bar in order to drop the paywall on any story, just for fun. It took just four lines of code.

You just can't see a wall like this without wondering how you can get around it.

"You just can't see a wall like this without wondering how you can get around it," he wrote at the time. "I love the New York Times, don't say that I forced you to not pay for it."

The Times sent Hayes a copyright complaint, forcing him to change the name to NYClean, but there was no legal action. Eventually, the company fortified its paywall and NYClean no longer works.

Unfortunately for freeloaders, the Eagle reported Kansas.com Jailbreak to the Google Chrome store and had it removed because "its purpose is to enable theft," according to Chisenhall. (The Eagle's paywall was down as of last week due to an "unrelated issue," according to the paper, but ordinarily kicks in after five free articles.)

So if you need regular updates on local goings-on such as " West-side hamburger restaurant has closed," "Comedian Jerry Seinfeld will perform in Wichita in November," and "Mom sentenced to probation for leaving baby in hot closet," it'll cost you $99 a year.

Smith is job hunting and says he has no regrets.

Update, 10/13: This story has been updated with quotes from the Eagle.