The user-hostile AFR

By Felix Salmon
November 30, 2010
Think of this as the web-publishing equivalent of Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs.

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Think of this as the web-publishing equivalent of Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs.

First, there’s the web page: an interview, at, with Rupert Murdoch.

The interview looks like this, when you look at it in a browser:


The text is quite simple:

The average gray-bald grandfather in his 70s tends to play with his grandchildren. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, 72, it now seems indisputable, likes to play with teenage girls. Rupert Murdoch, 79, likes to play with newspapers . . . still.

I didn’t copy that text out manually, I just printed the web page to a PDF, and copy-and-pasted the PDF. Why didn’t I copy-and-paste the website itself? Because if I do that, I get this:

The average grey-bald grandfather in his © 70s tends beautifully to © think play with technology&rdqu with © See his grandchildren. Italian for Prime on Minister Silvio it mind growth Berlusconi, it. a 72, © the it subjects now seems results. said mind likes indisputable, © may not likes to On play with teenage girls. Rupert © Murdoch, teenage ITV 79, likes © Italia to © © accelerated. Th play © with © the newspapers © system. price America . . . © still.

And if you look at the raw HTML source for the text in question, it looks like this:

The average gray-bald grandfather in his <span class=”edbe7″>&copy; </span>70s tends <u class=”a187a9″>beautifully </u><span class=”o4f”>to</span> <u class=”edbe7″>&copy; </u><em class=”f78f8″>think </em><i class=”a187a9″> </i><span class=”o4f”>play</span> <em class=”f78f8″> with </em><b class=”f78f8″>technology&rdqu </b>with <i class=”edbe7″>&copy; </i><em class=”a187a9″>See </em>his <span class=”o4f”>grandchildren.</span> Italian <i class=”f78f8″>for </i>Prime <b class=”a187a9″>on </b>Minister Silvio <span class=”a187a9″>it mind </span><b class=”a187a9″>growth </b>Berlusconi, <em class=”f78f8″>it. a </em><span class=”a187a9″> </span>72, <span class=”edbe7″>&copy; </span><i class=”a187a9″>the </i>it <u class=”a187a9″>subjects </u>now seems <span class=”a187a9″>results. said </span><b class=”a187a9″>mind </b><b class=”a187a9″>likes </b>indisputable, <span class=”edbe7″>&copy; </span><em class=”f78f8″>may not </em>likes to <i class=”a187a9″>On </i>play <span class=”f78f8″> </span>with teenage <span class=”o4f”>girls.</span> <span class=”o4f”>Rupert</span> <em class=”edbe7″>&copy; </em>Murdoch, <i class=”a187a9″>teenage ITV </i><span class=”a187a9″> </span>79, likes <u class=”edbe7″>&copy; </u><u class=”f78f8″> </u><u class=”f78f8″>Italia </u><span class=”o4f”>to</span> <i class=”edbe7″>&copy; </i><span class=”edbe7″>&copy; </span><u class=”f78f8″>accelerated. Th </u><span class=”o4f”>play</span> <i class=”edbe7″>&copy; </i>with <span class=”edbe7″>&copy; </span><i class=”f78f8″>the </i>newspapers <em class=”edbe7″>&copy; </em><b class=”f78f8″>system. price </b><b class=”a187a9″> </b><em class=”a187a9″>America </em><span class=”o4f”>. . .</span> <em class=”edbe7″>&copy; </em>still. </p><i class=”a187a9″>to </i>

As John Gapper notes, if you thought the FT was user-hostile, you have no idea what other publishers are up to.

This isn’t Tynt abuse, it’s simple user hostility, with no added value for the publisher at all. When I copy-and-paste something from the Fin, the publisher has now idea what I’m copying, and therefore can’t use that information to help improve the quality of the publication. There aren’t even any sharing tools on the web page, beyond the obligatory “email a friend” link. It’s pure user hostility.

No one will subscribe to as a result of this idiocy, and some non-negligible number of people will unsubscribe because of it. No one wants to be made to feel like a criminal just for copying a snippet of something they’re reading.

I’m astonished that Australians put up with this — and even more astonished that Australian publishers (or Fairfax, at least) go to so much effort to shoot themselves in the foot. But if you ever wanted a prime example of a news publication rebelling like some screaming two-year-old at both its readers and the internet, this is surely it. The Fin is a noble paper; I do hope it changes its ways soon.

Update: Kevin Drum emails to say that the text is unreadable in the Opera browser; it’s also unreadable to the blind.


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What browser do you use? This could probably be counteracted using a client-side plugin that always allows you to copy as plain text.

Posted by cooperowl | Report as abusive

Organizations have to be very careful with this, as it likely runs afoul of many laws designed to protect the disabled. Perhaps you should send them a cease and desist and cite whatever the Australian equivalent of the ADA is.

Posted by davidwe | Report as abusive

I can tell you though, as an Aussie, this is the least of the Fin’s problems. It’s a terrible newspaper, with poor writers, garbage analysis and blatant political slant (which surprisingly, is in fact to the populist left rather than the right). The Fin is the only business specific newspaper in Australia and therefore is the only paper that covers Australian business events (unless they reach international scale and hit FT or the Journal), and because of that it continues to sell papers. If another paper entered the Australian market with an aggressive strategy I suspect that the Fin would bleed market share very fast indeed. As far as it’s website is concerned though, the real problem is its restrictive paywall that blocks pretty much everything unless you’re a subscriber.

Posted by willderwent2010 | Report as abusive

Another Australian here and a regular reader of the AFR – though I read the print version because it is made available to me via my employer.
Just to add a bit of balance to Will Derwent comment, imo the AFR is definitely not biased towards the left side of politics. If anything, it is right-leaning. Its big business agenda means it supports policies right of the centre, eg it recently vigorously supported a political campaign by mining companies against a rent resource tax proposed.
It is the best paper for financial and business news in Australia, but I have noted a deterioration in its standard. It often recycles articles – even on the same day – printing the same material under a different headline.

Posted by AFRReader | Report as abusive