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This new ad-blocker has a plan to pay publishers

This new ad-blocker has a plan to pay publishers

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The release of iOS 9 last year kicked off a rush of new mobile ad blockers and new controversy, as websites (including this one) decried the new programs as a blow against independent publishers and the open web. The response from many was that web advertising as we knew it was broken — slowing page loads and enabling mass surveillance with no improvements in sight — and it would take a revolution in advertising to fix it. But while mobile ad blockers have proved popular, actual innovations have been much slower to arrive.

Now, Javascript pioneer and former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich has launched a browser called Brave that could offer ad-blockers a new way to support publishers and the open web. Available in beta for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS, Brave offers the same features as traditional blockers like Crystal and the now-defunct Peace, drawing in users with faster loading times and less exposure to tracking cookies. But the current browser is just the first step in a far more ambitious project to reshape tracking-based web advertising as a whole. Brave would replace individualized tracking cookies with anonymity-friendly interest tags, and use direct micropayments to make up the difference in ad rates. It’s a bold plan, pitting Eich against Google and some of the most powerful companies on the web.

"Agencies are willing to do it because they’re worried about ad blockers too."

Unlike earlier generations of ad blocking software, Brave won’t simply be removing ads: it will be replacing them with new ads that split revenue between publishers, users, network partners, and Brave itself. To critics, that may look like simple theft: the browser is taking money that would be going to publishers, inserting itself in the middle and taking a cut. Still, Eich says he’s serious about sending money back to publishers. "If there are enough users," he told The Verge, "Brave could look like a better source of revenue for them than advertisers." The hope is that with enough scale, Brave users can generate as much money for sites as they would through the traditional system, making up for less targeting data with a better revenue split and fewer middlemen. Eich says that break-even number could be as low as 15 million, a fraction of the usage of even small browsers like Opera.

Making the payment system work is Brave’s biggest challenge. The company’s first project is to develop a way to confirm that a user viewed or clicked on an ad without relying on conventional tracking methods. It’s a serious technical challenge but Eich says the team has a solution that will preserve anonymity using a zero-knowledge proof, which will be released as open source in a few months. The group already has a plan for simple interest tags that will allow for broad targeting without identifying users individually. From there, the challenge is getting advertisers to pay for those placements — but Eich says the response from traditional ad agencies has been positive: "Agencies are willing to do it because they’re worried about ad blockers too."

"dropping the money on publishers."

At the same time, the company is building in a way for users to pay publishers directly. Fifty-five percent of the ad revenue will go to website owners (a figure Eich says is significantly higher than the current standard for programmatic ads), which leaves 15 percent each for Brave, its ad partners, and the user herself. The user’s 15 percent will go into a personal wallet, managed using the Bitcoin protocol. Users can withdraw the money any time they want, but the hope is that they’ll redistribute it to websites, either leaving micropayments for individual articles or making a blanket donation to their top 20 most visited sites.

Notably, publishers don’t have any say in this system. All the money will go to Brave-managed publisher wallets without any prearranged deal, a system Eich refers to as "dropping the money on publishers." Publishers that like the system could decide to sign onto Brave’s ad network or arrange for article-specific paywall deals, but it’s just as likely that they’ll grudgingly take the money and go back to fighting ad-blockers on a technical level.

None of this is much use to small publishers, some of whom have lost as much as a third of their audience to ad-blocking plugins. But for those concerned about the privacy implications of widespread online tracking, the Brave system could offer a new path forward, preserving anonymity without cutting off publisher revenue wholesale. "We think an image on your page is generally your business," Eich says. "The problem is the tracking."