Picture: REUTERS
Picture: REUTERS

I have long considered today’s internet advertising model a scam: it’s a system in which giant, monopolistic companies — Google and Facebook — are selling inflated user numbers and overhyped targeting opportunities to advertisers while collecting way too much information about users and cheating content creators out of their fair share of revenue.

It may not be too late to fix it, though. Just ask Brendan Eich, founder and CEO of Brave Software, a San Francisco-based start-up whose attempt to change the standards could be considered quixotic if not for Eich’s track record.

Eich created the JavaScript programming language while working for Netscape, and then co-founded the Mozilla project, which developed the Firefox browser. He had to leave Mozilla for reasons that had nothing to do with his vision or technical prowess.

His current company makes a browser, too, but it’s different from others in that it prevents sites from tracking a user and blocks ads, while also bypassing the anti-ad-blocker protection used by major news sites. I’ve tried it and it works better than the ad-blockers in other browsers, such as Chrome and Safari. The browser is built on Google’s open-source Chromium code, and its usage isn’t tracked by browser market share statistics: it shows up as Chrome. “We hide in the Chrome crowd,” as Eich put it to me in a conversation on the Telegram messenger.

Why would people agree to see ads? Well, because they’d get paid for that

That must come in handy for a product that undermines the business model of most top websites its users visit: it’s difficult to block.

At first glance, what Brave does should only make things worse for content creators who rely on advertising income. But Eich is looking to build a different model that should work better for them, and for advertisers, than the current one. Eich appears to think and talk faster than most people can follow:

“We get direct brand and agency deals that result in a catalogue, same for all users in a given region and natural language, who opt in. No tracking. Local machine learning studies multiple inputs from search and e-commerce query logs, to click logs and tab constellations, to ad views (if we have a 3rd party partnership) and actions, to e-commerce consummations, to YouTube and other big site interactions. This is the full dataset Google sees via remote tracking (and so misses where Doubleclick or another tracker they own is not embedded in remote content).”

This bears explaining. Brave’s idea is to take Google’s (and Facebook’s) place as an intermediary between advertisers and internet users by offering precise targeting based on what the browser learns about each specific user.

The targeted ads would reach real humans, and not bots or multiple accounts set up by the same user, who must actually agree to see ads. In fact, Brave envisions “bank-level” know-your-client rules.

As for the browsing data, Brave doesn’t want to collect it and sell it on: it’s supposed to remain, and be analysed, on the user’s computer.

Why would people agree to see ads? Well, because they’d get paid for that. Starting in the first half of next year, Brave intends to hand over to users 70% of gross revenue from ads directly sold by the company. If publishers partner with it as an advertising conduit, the publishers will get 70% of revenue and users will get 15%.

That’s one revenue stream for publishers. Another is supposed to come directly from browser users. Even now, Brave allows them to make voluntary payments for content from a cryptocurrency wallet attached to the browser. A user sets up a monthly catch-all subscription payment, and creators and publishers are compensated from it according to how much content the user has consumed. But one can easily imagine how a media company’s own subscriptions could be integrated with the wallets, and how users could spend part of their ad revenue share for the subscriptions.

Standards get moved by up-and-comers who disrupt old models. Firefox did this. Mozilla has punched above its weight on standards.

It’s a win-win scheme for advertisers, users and publishers. Its weakness, though, is that it needs massive adoption to become interesting to them all. Eich says Brave has 1-million monthly active users, and he expects that to get to 5-million next year. As browsers go, these are tiny numbers. But, Eich says, “1-million, 5-million, all those are numbers I grew Firefox through to get to 10-million, 50-million, 100-million. I also went through Netscape going from 40% of market to 80% (and then the downhill side).”

In May, Brave held an initial coin offering, selling 1-billion so-called “basic attention tokens”, its local currency that’s convertible into common crypto-or fiat currencies. The tokens were sold for 156,250 ether, worth almost $67m now, so Brave has plenty of cash on hand — but it has also kept some of the tokens it issued to give away to users so they could pay content creators.

This week, it started handing out the token grants. It’s a nerdy way to stimulate adoption; but then Eich says he doesn’t need a giant user base to drive standard change. He quotes Nessim Taleb’s salt example: all salt sold by grocery stores is simultaneously kosher and halal, though neither Muslims not Jews make up the majority of buyers.

“Standards get moved by up-and-comers who disrupt old models,” Eich told me. “Firefox did this. Mozilla has punched above its weight on standards.”

The idea appears to be to show a better, more equitable model to the world and force the internet advertising duopoly, Google and Facebook, to take notice.

There’s a good reason for them to do so: Brave offers effective ad-blocking and privacy protection at a time when people are getting tired of the internet giants’ use of their personal data as a freely donated commodity they can sell on.

So what does Brave want Google and Facebook to do once they realise the danger? “Buy us at right price, possibly,” he replies. “I think Google might, as they would not be able to duplicate our model now without antitrust issues. They would of course consider copying rather than buying.”

It’s hard for me to buy into Eich’s optimism about the duopoly’s willingness completely to overhaul the way they do business, especially since Brave hasn’t fully rolled out its offering yet and since scaling it depends on technological advances.

It requires the company to develop further local machine learning, as well as improvements to the Ethereum platform to allow large numbers of token transactions on a blockchain. Despite its considerable cash reserves, for a start-up, Brave is fighting a David vs. Goliath battle — and hoping, to boot, that Goliath will pay for David’s skill with the sling.

It’s difficult, however, not to support the ideas behind Brave — both as an internet user fed up with today’s fraudulent advertising model and the proliferation of bots, and as a professional writer interested in selling my work.

I want to see advertising only if I opt into it, and I want to get paid for looking at ads; I want to pay my favourite content creators with that revenue; I don’t want to be tracked around the internet; and I think advertisers should be certain they are sending their messages to real, identified people. I hope it’s not a utopia. Eich’s experiment is certainly worth watching.

Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg and its owners.

Bloomberg

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