The internet is in a moment of crisis. On the one hand, people who use the internet hate ads—they're annoying, make sites load slower, crowd out the stuff you're actually trying to see, and sometimes carry malware. On the other hand, people who put stuff on the internet need users to look at ads so they can make money so they can keep putting stuff on the internet.
The reason why these countervailing forces have now reached an actual point of crisis is the mainstream use of adblockers, browser extensions that prevent ads from loading. Check out this chart, via PageFair and Adobe, who claim the cost of ad blocking to publishers is now in the billions of dollars:
Publishers started taking notice of the problem in 2013. When they saw users visiting with ad blockers, they'd put up messages in the place where ads were supposed to be, saying, "Please turn off your ad blocker" or "Please pay us a little somethin' since you're blocking our ads." But with the spike in that graph above, publishers and ad networks are starting to get more alarmed. They've accused ad blockers of extortion, saying some offer to whitelist ads for payment. One of the biggest online ad associations won't let one of the biggest ad blockers come to its annual meeting. And several publishers, including my previous employer Forbes, now block their content for ad-blocking visitors.
Into this fray enters Brendan Eich, who founded Firefox-making Mozilla, served at its chief tech officer and briefly its CEO before being forced to resign over a political donation around gay marriage. Eich has a kind of crazy plan to end the ad-blocking war. It involves a brand new browser, c++, a business model that advertising networks are going to hate, and Bitcoin.
Last week, Eich launched Brave, a browser that promises to block tracking, cookies and ads by default. It plans to make money by putting up its own nonintrusive, privacy-respective ads up instead. It will then cut users and publishers in on the ad profits by setting up Bitcoin wallets for them, to which micropayments will automatically be sent when a user looks at an ad. Publishers will get 55% of the ad revenue, says Eich. It's received $2.5 million from private investors, a good chunk of which it probably needed to buy brave.com.
"We want to do something for the users," said Eich by phone last week. "Your eyes bleed when you go on a lot of sites these days."
I tried Brave out and it is a pretty fantastic browser experience. Sites load super quickly thanks to not loading all the extra code dedicated to tracking and showing ads. Not all ads disappear. I still saw Google's text ads next to search results and a pop-up encouraging me to sign up for PCMag's email list, because these are first-party ads, controlled by the website you're visiting as opposed to a third-party ad network. And sometimes it makes mistakes, as in one instance, on DrudgeReport.com, when it blocked an image along with the ads.
Brave won't let ad networks or publishers pay to be exempted from blocking. Instead its business model is to block ads and then put its own in their place. Which is an interesting ethical gambit. It's the real world equivalent of painting over someone's billboard with your own sign. In the past, cyber criminals have infected millions of computers with malware just so they could replace their ads (That, along with some click fraud, made them $14 million).
"I doubt many publishers will be happy that this new service could force its way into effectively becoming their new ad agency," said Santa Clara University law professor Eric Goldman.
According to the start-up's spokesperson, Brave's legal team determined that "the Web is not 'copyprotected' and case law supports users in their browsers rearranging content, blocking ads, etc."
Technology lawyer Venkat Balasubramani called it a legal gray zone. Publishers have sued, and continue to sue, ad blocking companies, but have generally not been successful. Most lawsuits by publishers allege intellectual property or copyright claims, saying that ad blockers create derivative versions of their site, though they could also claim "unjust enrichment," said Balasubramani, saying they're being deprived of revenue.
"To the extent that the fair use winds have shifted over the last 5 years, the ad blocking companies may be in a better position," said Balasubramani by email. "But the ad blocking companies should be thinking about their legal strategy."
In a blog post, Eich says he hopes Brave will help avert a war rather than continue the one underway between ad blockers and publishers. He's convinced that publishers will actually be happy about the money that trickles into the Bitcoin wallets that Brave sets up for them. ("Bitcoin is still the best way to go, despite Mike Hearn’s post [about it being a failed experiment]," Eich said.)
That money, by the way, is not trickling in yet. Brave doesn't have any advertisers using its platform yet. When they do, users will be targeted based on what a browser already knows about them, such as the websites they've visited. Brave says this information stays on users' computers, and the ad match is made there, rather than being sent back to Brave's cloud, in order to protect their privacy.
Assuming users are comfortable with that and that publishers and ad networks don't overwhelm Brave with lawsuits, the question is whether Brave can actually attract enough users to entice advertisers.
"Ad blocking is going to keep rising," says Eich. "Users are winning and publishers are losing."