Mozilla co-founder wants to pay you surf the Web with his new browser

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Feb 29, 2020, 12:27 pm*

Tech

 

AJ Dellinger

When Firefox launched for the public in 2004, it spread rapidly around the Web. The browser’s promise of openness and innovation generated over 100 million downloads in its first year, in part due to the contributions of JavaScript creator and Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich.

Over a decade later, Firefox still holds strong as the second most-used browser, but the promises that generated such excitement when it debuted have stagnated. Eich is no longer with the company, pushed to step down amidst a cloud of controversy that stemmed from a $1,000 donation to California Proposition 8—a state constitutional amendment that recognized only marriages between a man and woman.

Nearly two years removed from that backlash, Eich has returned to the spotlight with a new browser that wants to drastically rethink the way the Internet as we know it works. 

It’s called Brave, and its mission certainly lives up to the name: “Part of what I’m doing here is trying to take apart the ad-funded Web and put it back together in a way that works,” Eich told the Daily Dot.

“There aren’t too many ways to do that unless you’re in control of all the publishers and all the advertisers at once. Or if you had a large user base that uses a proxy of some kind that can mess with your content.” That three-pronged problem requires an overhaul to the current system to truly address it. 

Brave, Eich’s solution, is an open-source Web browser built on the Chromium framework, the open-source software behind Google’s Chrome browser. It gets rid of the things that have bogged the Web down. Trackers, cookies, and the like—the tools used to put advertisements in front of users—are blocked in Brave by default.

“Part of what I’m doing here is trying to take apart the ad-funded Web and put it back together in a way that works.”

What replaces them? Well, more advertisements. But Eich doesn’t think that’s such a bad thing. Ads make the Web go ’round, after all—but in their current form, they’re making that rotation slower and slower. Brave is being developed to be the window into a better Web.

Brave isn’t the first to make take on this mission. Eich said others have attempted to tackle the ads issue using proxy solutions. The move to HTTPS—the now widely used secure communication protocol—requires a man-in-the-middle style attack, with the proxy pretending to be the user so it can encrypt and read the packets of data. It’s a method utilized by companies, such as hotels that provide hotspots, who insert their own ads into the browser. “It can get pretty nasty,” Eich said.

“I’ve done browsers for a long time. I was trying not to do browsers,” Eich said. “When I went through all the options, I realized the only really good way to do this kind of judo on the ad system is through the browser,” because, he said, the browser is where the majority of the information is handled.

The first prong of the problem for Brave, and for any browser that wants to present the same alternative to the current ad system, is accumulating users. 

“Getting browser users up to scale isn’t that hard. It’s been done, it’s being done, and it will be done. There are new browsers coming onto the scene in different parts of the world,” Eich explained.

He sees the current batch of browsers, the most dominant gateways to the Web, to be vulnerable to a challenge. “Software becomes middle-aged and fat and sporadic. Often its tended by a business that has become very large and the main business isn’t being a great browser—it’s being something else like an operating system or a search company or a shiny phone company.”

Eich said the easiest way to get new users on board is to build something they love. How do you do that? By using the model that initially built the user base of Chrome and Firefox: “make it fast.”

“The lowest hanging fruit in browser speed isn’t trying to squeeze that last percent out of… engine performance,” Eich said. “It’s to actually block all the trackers and ads that are delaying the text from showing up on your phone and burning your battery.”

The goal for Brave is to get to at least 7 million users. Eich believes that figure should be enough to create a viable sample to prove the feasibility of a new ad system. Then there’s the true challenge: upending the ad tech industry, which moves billions of dollars every year.

“I could have just done an ad-blocking browser and said, ‘Hey, great, I’m done,'” Eich said, but he acknowledged that ads have a purpose. The problem isn’t that ads exist, but rather the way they function.

Under the current system, publishers and media companies are essentially required to operate through third-party systems that are filled with click fraud and invasive practices used to target specific users. Some can afford to use native advertising—a practice Brave is fine with because there’s no tracking taking place—but any site that isn’t operated by a major media conglomerate is likely going to have to participate in the flawed system.

According to a 2014 study conducted by the Internet Advertising Bureau, only 45 percent of revenue makes it back to the publisher under the current model. “I think they thought that was a good number; I think it’s a bad number,” Eich said—and the figure is likely on the high side. “If you actually talk to publishers, they say it’s more like 20 or 10 [percent].”

Even if the take-home share skews closer to the suggested 45 percent, the current system isn’t serving any party particularly well. In the current world of advertising, it matters if a placed ad is seen and how many times it’s seen before being clicked. 

Tracking that information is the basis of the revenue-sharing model, but the system is fragile and regularly gamed—a practice that often goes unchecked because the companies that place the ads reap the benefits of it. 

“Marketers don’t like admitting it’s a problem because it’s a conflict of interest,” Eich said. “Click fraud actually makes the click numbers better. It’s what they live for—they live and die by the short-term numbers.” But while they might be generating clicks, they aren’t resulting in sales.

Eich says that he can do everything that is required for this process within his browser—”We know the geometry of the page, we know the opacity of the layers, we know what’s visible above the fold, we know what’s not”—and it can be done privately. “We know it in our code, on your machine, on your local operating system. We don’t need to take that data out into the cloud—and we don’t.”

There’s no user data sucked from within the browser and given to advertisers to help them target users. Instead, the browser makes use of a user’s activities that may provide insight into their interests without generating a digital trail of breadcrumbs that would lead to identifying information.

“In the browser, you have all this data that isn’t even surveyed from the network,” Eich said. Everything from having multiple, related tabs open to opening a link from a tab provide information that can be utilized in identifying interests. Eich believes the browser can be even better at this than a standard tracker because the browser knows what is in view on the page while a tracker just knows a page is open.

“In a browser, it’s totally local and it’s your data, and our terms of use make this clear,” Eich said. “All we do is local inference from your browsing history, your habits, the seasonality of your actions. … Whether you’re searching in some group of tabs for some major purpose, we can product that.”

Eich said the code hasn’t been built or implemented yet—it’s in the works—but it will function like an artificial intelligence vehicle that can model the user’s brain based off “intent signals”—actions in the browser that signify intent. Those intent signals are turned into tags that express interests, only a slice of which will be served up on any given page. 

This limited approach, only revealing part of a user at any given time, prevents data from becoming a honeypot while still ensuring that ads have some relevance to those who see them. Even tags that would put users in a small, identifiable group are withheld by Brave. It’s advertising at arm’s length.

What is unique about Brave’s handling of ads, outside of its elimination of cookies and identifiers, is its ability to verify impressions on ads without disclosing any information about the user. The technology that serves as proof of concept on it is new, but Eich said it’s successful and Brave will implement it.

Under his plan with Brave, 55 percent of ad revenue generated will land in the hands of the publisher, while 15 percent goes back to Brave, and 15 percent will go to the partners that supply the advertisements. The remaining 15 percent go to something a bit more novel—that revenue share is distributed back into the pockets of the user.

“If you have to look at ads, you should get a revenue share. If you’re willing to pay a little to the publisher, you shouldn’t have to look at ads.”

“We don’t want to just take all the money for ourselves,” Eich said. “Instead, we wanted to drop money on publishers.” Users will have the option of taking the cash they generate from having ads placed in front of them while browsing and redistributing those funds to the publishers they visit the most. Doing so will do away with ads on those sites that they spend the majority of their time on.

The system will use Bitcoin, the popular cryptocurrency that is created and held digitally. Brave users and publishers will be given Bitcoin wallets, a sort of credentialing system that enables them to send and receive the currency. “We’re setting up wallets eagerly, opportunistically,” Eich said. Publishers will be approved liberally so “mom and pop” sites will be able to benefit from the system, which will operate similarly to a paywall program with a flat rate for ad-free access. 

 The amount of money users will hold won’t be all that significant—”like a Snickers bar or a coffee a month”—but they will be able to drop their own money into their account to distribute to publishers. Eich explained it will be a single-click proposition, and once done the ads will disappear. 

“If you have to look at ads, you should get a revenue share. If you’re willing to pay a little to the publisher, you shouldn’t have to look at ads,” Eich said.

Since the cash generated through browsing won’t be a particularly large figure, it will be easy to simply spread it to sites in exchange for a better browsing experience. That could be a benefit to publishers, who will see what amount to “found money” being dropped into their wallets every month—which they can withdraw as fiat currency without ever having to deal with it in Bitcoin form. 

But Eich said he thinks the free version is better than the paid, “premium” model, “because we’re giving you money.”

When users decide to partake in this part of the system, the Bitcoin processing company verifies their identity, a process that will also help verify clicks from users are real and not generated by bots or other nefarious means. 

“Up until that point, it’s just a browser you can use. Our engagement with our users—unless they want to give us an email address, which they can volunteer—is entirely anonymous,” Eich said. Brave will eventually have the ability to sync across platforms, be it desktop or mobile, but it won’t be accomplished via login or cloud authentication like most options. Instead, user data—passwords, history, bookmarks, etc.—will be encrypted and paired via QR code.

In the future, Eich hopes that at least parts of Brave will be available to users even if they don’t make the full jump to the standalone browser. Creating an extension for other browsers is an eventual goal, in part because many people use multiple browsers, but won’t be as feature-complete as the browser.

Because Brave is built on the Chromium framework, it will be able to support some Chrome extensions—provided those extensions pass a security audit. It would seem that support would leave Brave vulnerable—some enterprising user could simply build an extension to block the new ads Brave displays. 

Eich isn’t worried about that because he plans to beat them to the punch. In an advanced settings pane, Brave will have an option to simply block everything. “We don’t agree with free rides, but we’re not going to stop you,” Eich said. But he believes the Brave experience will be good enough on its own that users won’t need to resort to the same blockers that today’s ad-supported Web have pushed them toward.

Brave is undoubtably an ambitious project, and there’s still a lot it has to prove before it can even begin to upend the entire Web advertising industry. Its announcement on Wednesday introduced an early build; much of what Eich talks about won’t exist until he hammers out details with publishers and ad-placing companies and fully builds the technology required to implement it all. 

Eich has caught lightning in a bottle before, and he’s only looking for a fraction of the user base Firefox found. Now he’s hoping to siphon off some of those users he stole from Internet Explorer over a decade ago to rethink the Web once again.

H/T VentureBeat | Illustration via Max Fleishman

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*First Published: Jan 29, 2016, 10:00 am