Loop-Hole Ethics and The New York Times

The NYT’s website paywall plan floats in a sea of holes.

Ariel Kaminer, author of “The Ethicist” column in The New York Times Magazine, made an interesting assertion in her answer to a reader who asked about whether he could exploit several loop-holes in the Times’ new paywall plan for its website.

Noting that he was a struggling freelance journalist who visits the Times website often, he asked if it was unethical for him to use his parents’ free access to the content, since they are subscribers.  Then he Mused about other scenarios. “If I buy online access, can I share the password with my live-in girlfriend, even if I move to New York for the summer? What about our other housemates?”

Kaminer boiled all this down to one question: “If a company’s payment plan includes obvious loopholes, as The New York Times’s does, is it therefore ethical to step through them?” Her answer was no. She compared using the Times on-line content without paying personally to the unethical practice of buying clothes, wearing them to a party and returning them the next day. “However you rationalize it, it’s stealing, a little,” she wrote. Moving on to Kant’s Principle of Universality (does the system work if everyone were to do it?), she continued, “If everyone opted to set his own pricing strategy, The Times would have to offer less free content. Then it would have to offer less content period. And after that?”

What is she saying? That a house with one computer and six people should buy six on-line passes, rather than use the same one? Does she think houses with six residents should have to buy six subscriptions to get the paper? It is not the duty of Times readers to solve the Times’ income issues. If signing up for access to the website includes a promise not to share the password with anyone, and you sign it, fine: you have pledged certain conduct as part of the agreement, and that closes the loophole in my estimation. But the agreement doesn’t require such a pledge, meaning that the Times has calculated that it will sell more access without it. Why does Kaminer think there is still an ethical obligation not to exploit a loophole that the Times chooses not to close itself?

I don’t use the Times site the full 20 instances a month that trigger a paid access requirement. Yes, if everybody did that, and used the Times site only 19 times a month and no more, it would cause some hardship. Solution: Make the limit ten uses, or five. Or just charge for any use at all. Kaminer is arguing that her employer has the right to have its cake and eat it too: set loop-holes that make the Times accessible to more casual readers (thus allowing it to sell site space to advertisers), but to tell “loyalists,” as Kaminer does later in her answer, that “setting [their] own price is unethical and unwise.”

Nonsense. I’m loyal to the United States, too, but if it provides me a way to spend less on my user’s fee, a.k.a. income taxes, I’m using every loop-hole I can legally take advantage of, and not feeling guilty in the least. If Kaminer thinks that is the equivalent of dishonestly borrowing clothing for a party by pretending to buy it in good faith and returning it after getting the full benefit and paying nothing, she needs remedial analogy training. The clothes scam is stealing: everyone knows and understands that if you wear a piece of clothing for an evening, there is no returning it unless it proves spectacularly defective. Allowing others in your household to view the Times site you are paying for? Fair and reasonable. (Giving your password to friends and family who live elsewhere, however, is unethical.)

If Kaminer thinks Times lovers are obligated to pay when the Times’ own system allows them not to, what does she think about the obligations of Washington Post lovers, whose website doesn’t ask them for money at all? That’s the ultimate loop-hole, isn’t it? Should they send money to the Post anyway? Let’s see…I think the Post’s site is at least 75% as useful as the Times site. Is it unethical not to send the Post a proportionate fee? Hmmmm.…The Los Angeles Times is 75% as useful as the Post….

This is madness. I’ll pay what the Times requires me to pay when I use the website at the level that mandates payment. I’ll abide by any terms the Times chooses to set for my use that I agree to, including not sharing my password-access with anyone else in my home, but those terms might discourage me from paying for the service, too. If the Times managers leave loop-holes open, I’ll assume they are doing so for sound business reasons: it’s their business, after all. I won’t feel a second’s remorse for taking full advantage of the loop-holes, because it is within the power of the New York Times to place whatever conditions and price on my use that it wants.

If Ariel Kaminer really expects anyone to believe that this is “stealing, a little,” she should change her column’s title from “The Ethicist” to “The Optimist.”

3 thoughts on “Loop-Hole Ethics and The New York Times

  1. I am a “wheelie”. Our state provides handicapped placards to allow disabled people to park in special reserved spaces, get discounts on city parking spaces, etc. I don’t drive or own a car. I gave the placard to my daughter, who lives in a different part of the city, to hang in her car when we go out for dinner, theatre, etc.

    She NEVER uses it for herself when she’s not with me, though she could get away with it. Her reasons: besides possibly depriving a handicapped person of a needed space, she says it would violate her sense of herself. She’s an honest woman. I like her.

  2. The hypothetical of a single household with six users is highly apt, but I think it’s also worth considering whether Kaminer’s view carries over to the print version of the paper. If a person subscribes to home delivery of the Times, are we to believe that it is unethical for him to allow a domestic partner or a guest in his home to read from it?

    I think a principal reason why the clothing analogy so readily falls apart is because of the vagaries of use and ownership when we’re talking about information, as opposed to a physical object. It is part of the reason why papers like the Times are in financial trouble now, and why even making the entire site pay-only would not entirely solve that problem so long as individual articles are excerpted and re-posted elsewhere.

    I’m all for the ethics of supporting good reporting and upholding copyright, but there are separate, reasonable ethics in favor of freely exchanging information, without sending even close friends and family back to the original source to pay for access to it.

    • I think one important difference between sharing a printed copy of a newspaper and sharing a password to access an electronic version is that the number of people who can use a printed newspaper is intrinsically limited (assuming you don’t wish to separate sections, only a number of people equal to the number of sections can read it). There is no intrinsic limit on the number of people who can use a password to access an electronic version of a newspaper.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.