What is 12ft Ladder?: popular paywall-bypassing site is back online after being taken down

12ft Ladder was allegedly taken offline for violating its web hosting provider's terms of service (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Wire)
12ft Ladder was allegedly taken offline for violating its web hosting provider's terms of service (Dominic Lipinski/PA) (PA Wire)

By now, most people have encountered a news paywall. You’ll be browsing social media or your favourite newsletter, tapping a link to a recommended article, only to find it locked behind a subscription.

Over the past decade, many major news publishers have embraced paywalls in Europe and the US. This shift is largely due to three trends: readers predominantly getting their news from the web instead of newspapers, Google and Meta’s sway over digital advertising revenue, and a large chunk of traffic being gobbled up by social media.

Running a newsroom is a costly endeavour, and many readers are more than happy to pay for the news. The need for reliable information is more important than ever in our post-pandemic world, with wars and polarising topics like immigration resulting in a deluge of misinformation online.

On the other hand, there will always be those who try to circumvent paywalls to access the news for free. Now, a website that was gaining traction for allowing people to do just that has gone dark.

The site, known as 12ft Ladder, boldly proclaimed that it could override online paywalls. In reality, it struggled to bypass the restrictions on many leading news sites, which are wising up to these types of tools. 12ft Ladder’s website currently shows an error message stating that it has been disabled.

It’s unlikely that news publishers will be celebrating its demise, however. The industry is caught in a cat-and-mouse duel with similar tools that enable users to access premium content for free.

What are the most popular paywall sites?

As tech giants have introduced disruptive changes to their platforms, from de-prioritising news on users’ feeds to axing third-party cookies that give publishers valuable info on their readers, news sites have evolved their digital subscription models.

These kind of websites are, unsurprisingly, largely unpopular with news publishers. Richard Reeves, MD at the Association of Online Publishers, has said: "High-quality, responsible journalism costs money, and circumventing paywalls by fraudulent means is an abhorrent act of piracy. The mere fact these ‘paywall bypassing’ sites exist and can gain access to content by masquerading as search engine crawlers is exploitative and, put simply, amounts to theft. This creates a serious dilemma for publishers: search crawlers are necessary for content discovery yet, at the same time, are stealing from the hand that feeds them."

These days, you’re likely to come across either metered, freemium, or hard paywalls. The main difference between the three models is the amount of articles readers can access before they have to pay. Metered and freemium paywalls offer a taster of news for free, which can include some unrestricted content for readers to browse or a select number of articles per month. Hard paywalls place all of a site’s content behind a subscription.

Some news publishers have found success with these models. According to media research firm the State of Digital Publishing, the top 10 most popular news sites with paywalls or subscriptions are:

  • The New York Times, 10 million subscribers (as of August 2023)

  • The Wall Street Journal, 3.3mn subscribers (March 2023)

  • The Athletic, 3.3mn subscribers (March 2023)

  • The Washington Post, 3mn subscribers (December 2022)

  • Nikkei, 3mn subscribers (September 2023)

  • The Economist, 1.18mn subscribers (March 2023)

  • The Financial Times, 1mn subscribers (March 2022)

  • The Guardian, 1mn subscribers (December 2021)

  • Caixin (Chinese), 1mn subscribers (June 2023)

  • Aftonbladet (Swedish), 1mn subscribers (September 2021)

Why has 12ft Ladder gone down?

Visitors to 12ft Ladder’s website started noticing that it was offline late last week. It appears that it was taken down after its website-hosting provider received complaints from disgruntled businesses.

The site currently shows a 402 error, which indicates that its content is not available until the client makes a payment.

12ft Ladder’s creator Thomas Millar posted on X that the site was down on October 29. He added that he was “banned” by his website-hosting platform Vercel with “no warning on a Friday night”.

In a response to his original post, Vercel CEO Guillermo Raunch said the site was in violation of the company’s terms of service, and was proving difficult to manage.

“Your paywall-bypassing site... created hundreds of hours of support time spent on all the outreach from the impacted businesses,” Raunch posted.

On Tuesday, October 31, Millar said he had regained access to his account and his domains were restored. But, at the time of writing, 12ft Ladder is still down.

12ft Ladder alternatives

For people who don’t like paying for stuff, the internet has made it relatively easy to obtain media for free.

At the turn of the millennium, the shift to digital audio resulted in people pirating music on apps like Napster and Limewire. To this day, some people still try to download movies and shows illegally. Meanwhile, Netflix password-sharing was rife until the streamer completely banned it.

Whether you blame it on subscription fatigue or the cost-of-living crisis, the fact is that many people also don’t want to fork out for their news. The UK had the lowest proportion of people who paid for online news in 2022 in Europe and the US, with just nine per cent, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report.

That’s where sites like 12ft Ladder come in. People have found a handful of tricks to get around paywalls, some more shadier than others. There are some relatively benign ways you can access restricted news for free, such as switching to the reader view on Safari for iPhone. This feature is designed to simplify web pages by removing ads or distracting menus, but can sometimes remove a paywall, too.

Then, there are downloadable tools like extensions for web browsers like Chrome that let you bypass paywalls. These can make it easier to browse the web uninterrupted, though they often come from unverified developers, and some can cause havoc with your laptop or computer’s settings.

Finally, there are sites like archive.today that some people use in a similar vein to 12ft Ladder, even though they are designed to create snapshots of websites.