Is a paywall a type of firewall?
November 25, 2020 2:57 PM   Subscribe

I am having a debate with friends. None of us are computer experts. Is a paywall a type of firewall?

Friend A used the word firewall to describe being unable to access a news article without being a subscriber. I said that’s a paywall. Friend A argues that it is a firewall, just one you can pay to get past. Friend B agrees and says a paywall is a type of firewall. I content that 1) that’s not common usage of the term and 2) the term firewall refers to a particular type of technology which is unrelated to how paywalls are set up.
posted by Waiting for Pierce Inverarity to Computers & Internet (15 answers total)
Firewall: A network security system that monitors and controls incoming and outgoing network traffic based on predetermined security rules.

Paywall: A method of restricting access to content, especially news, via a purchase or a paid subscription.
posted by EndsOfInvention at 3:01 PM on November 25, 2020 [31 favorites]

I would extend the common definition of Firewall to any layer that protects from spread of some dangerous thing, which matches the original fire-based definition. But still, the news aren't trying to "protect" themselves from users so using Firewall doesn't really make sense.
posted by JZig at 3:07 PM on November 25, 2020 [2 favorites]

Nah, this is one of those things where two wholly unrelated items use the same imagery in naming (the metaphor of "wall, thing to keep things in/out")
posted by CrystalDave at 3:22 PM on November 25, 2020 [8 favorites]

A hundred times no.
posted by GuyZero at 3:26 PM on November 25, 2020 [8 favorites]

In the context of newspapers and journalism specifically, in my mind, "firewall" refers specifically to the separation of the editorial/news from advertising, to keep the integrity from being compromised by business decisions. It's also relevant with government funded broadcasters like Voice of America, to keep the news independent of the policies of the government. This again goes back to the original fire-based definition.

I agree with you, a paywall is not a firewall.
posted by yuwtze at 3:27 PM on November 25, 2020 [3 favorites]

A "firewall" is hardware or software that blocks network connections.

If you try to read an article and you see a paywall, then nothing is stopping your computer from connecting to the site over the internet. It's just that the response you're getting back doesn't contain the content you were hoping to see.
posted by teraflop at 3:44 PM on November 25, 2020 [7 favorites]

As Yet Another Random Internet Computer Guy (qualifications: played Star Trek (1971 video game) when it was cutting edge (okay... maybe a teensy bit after it was cutting edge), am currently within reach of a computer I owned a quarter century ago which now serves as a doorstop-slash-surface-to-balance-things-on-when-all-tables-and-chairs-are-covered) my verdict is thus: 👎
posted by XMLicious at 4:25 PM on November 25, 2020

posted by inexorably_forward at 4:36 PM on November 25, 2020

I would be interested to hear your friends' opinions on whether, say, a bank's login page constitutes a firewall. Aside from how it's normally presented to the user (a pop up instead of a dedicated login page) and the fact that you have to pay for the login, a paywall is no different: Provide your login and password to see the content. I've never heard of either one being referred to as a firewall.

To expand slightly on EndOfInvention's answer: A firewall controls the network traffic itself and determines whether the packets from your PC ever make it to the web host of the site at all. It is completely unaware of any kind of paywall that may or may not be in place; that's a function of the web code and not the networking hardware / software.

Short answer from 25+ years in IT: You are correct on both of your items. A paywall is NOT a firewall, and I can't even make the stretch to call it a type of one either.
posted by SquidLips at 4:39 PM on November 25, 2020 [4 favorites]

Language changes over time. (See: "Hacker") But, no, personally I have not observed any much usage of the word "Firewall" to mean paywall.
posted by applesurf at 5:05 PM on November 25, 2020

In the context of newspapers and journalism specifically, in my mind, "firewall" refers specifically to the separation of the editorial/news from advertising, to keep the integrity from being compromised by business decisions.

"Firewall" in general derives from protective walls between an engine and things you don't want to burn, like people. Every car with an internal combustion engine has a firewall, though I imagine the first ones in vehicles were on the railroad, since there was actual fire going on there.

A firewall in computer networking does let some traffic through, but comparatively limited in relation to open access, and originally they weren't flexible. A lot of things have been invented since then and now you have "firewalls" that adapt to needs of the people running it, but in general the internet was composed of fire and the firewall kept it from reaching stuff you cared about.

A paywall is just an admission gate, and it's a play on "wall" in general rather than a variation on "firewall." In a sense you could say a ticket taker is a kind of firewall, but that would be pretty esoteric.

I wouldn't be surprised if the people who coined "paywall" were thinking firewall, both because paywalls are so common with publications and because it involves the internet and computers.

Now that I think about it, is there anything other than publications that use "paywall?" Everything else that requires money for access like that is described as "freemium" or "subscription" or some other non-metaphorical concept.
posted by rhizome at 5:17 PM on November 25, 2020 [1 favorite]

Little ms. flabdablet and I have an ongoing dispute about the meaning of "charger". She says it's the thing you plug into your phone to make it charge. I say that's a charging cable, and the charger is the thing you plug the upstream end of that cable into. She then wins the argument using her superior eyerolling skills.

So I have no doubt that the meaning of "firewall" will someday be perverted to the extent that a paywall is generally understood to be a type of firewall, because the English language has always evolved and will continue to evolve in ways deeply distressing to those of us who care what words actually mean.

This is all of a piece with "hacker" now including people who have managed to guess a password, "literally" being used to mean "figuratively", and decreasing numbers of people able tell the difference between "pacific" and "specific" or "reign" and "rein" or "tenant" and "tenet".

But I'd be much happier if we could at least avoid the loss of "firewall" as a useful technical term of art appearing on the list of Bad Things That 2020 Did.

Please let Friends A and B know that when we who do have computing expertise hear them say "firewall" when they mean "paywall", we immediately become less inclined to help them solve their technical problems. It's every bit as irritating as hearing people say "hard disk" when they mean "computer" or "computer" when they mean "monitor".

Or "charger" when they mean "USB A to Lightning cable". Grrr.
posted by flabdablet at 12:51 AM on November 26, 2020 [6 favorites]

A firewall is like a security person on the door at the jewellery store. If they see you bringing in a big stripey sack or climbing through the window, they won't let you in. The door staff don't know anything about the store products or prices, they're not looking to see if your payment plan is up to date, all that happens is you either get past or you don't. In many places they can be replaced at short notice with another security person from a different company.

The paywall is the person at the counter. You go past the door staff and up to the counter, and ask to buy a ring. The counter person explains how much you need to pay, and if you've made the payment you get the product. Usually it's the same set of sales staff saying things like "thanks for your money, here's the ring" as it is saying to the next person "here are the rings we have and the prices, no I can't let you take it out of the shop until you've paid".

The difference between this situation and the news website paywall, is that everyone understands that you pay for jewellery, so nobody consides it analogous to a wall when people in a jewellery store ask customers for money.
posted by quacks like a duck at 2:01 AM on November 26, 2020 [2 favorites]

Only if a cover charge is a bouncer
posted by at at 9:34 AM on November 26, 2020 [4 favorites]

I have a large wrench in my work bag that I sometimes use as hammer in a pinch. The fact that I use it strike objects does not make it a hammer, it is still and always will be a wrench. I assume your friend is arguing based on the premise that both a firewall and paywall keep people from accessing data that they were not meant to access for some reason. To a lay-end-user the percieved effect may be the same, but that does not mean they are the same. Ultimately the difference is a technical distinction, but technical distinctions are important, if not exactly thrilling topics of discussion.
posted by dudemanlives at 8:17 AM on November 27, 2020

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