A Brave New World for Internet Browsing and Visitor Tracking?
Internet advertising can be a highly divisive topic even among the best of friends. In fact, I would often get into heated debates with my own friends, over a beer or two, defending the argument that the internet, as we now know it, would not have been the same without advertising. Without it, how would all the search engines, social media platforms and quality content creators earn revenue? They would have to charge you, the user, directly, in order to keep their activity going. I would explain this to my beer pals, who I knew in advance were of another general opinion. At times, they would pay little attention to my rant, while absently browsing through their smartphones, to read some content they hadn’t paid a dime for. The irony of the situation seemed to be lost on them.
I would argue that this is much the same as most people are lost on the irony of using Facebook for free, then being surprised that they did not know it was using their personal data to gain revenue from advertising. Surprise would sometimes be followed by bold claims of not intending to use the service ever again. Double the irony, these claims would be made on, you guessed it, Facebook. It is not rare that users tend to have this “have it both ways” (no fees and no ads) attitude with various free-of-charge services, taking them totally for granted. Although one cannot deny that in this particular case, things were taken a step too far by Facebook, who did in fact breach the terms and conditions by selling personal data to third parties without the consent of some users, and pretty much ignoring their privacy settings. Since then, a lot has changed in terms of privacy settings on this particular social media.
An internet with ads vs. subscription-based content
Getting back to my conversation with my friends, no later than the moment I would finish my persuasive speech, my buddies would not hesitate to gang up on me. Their hate of advertising, interfering with their content and using their personal data and browsing history, was so deeply rooted that they could not be persuaded. So much so that they would inevitably make a bold statement of their own: they would rather pay for the content and everything else they used on the internet than have to deal with advertising. A bold statement indeed. One that I did not buy then and that I am not sure I am buying now. I would have liked to see their monthly bills if they had to pay subscriptions for all the online newspapers they read, on top of, say, a small amount of money every time they searched for something on Google.
In fact, my friends can now turn bravado into action. Some quality content creators do offer the option to pay for an experience without ads and some prestigious ones still work on a subscription-only model. Most notably, Youtube has introduced a premium plan that removes all ads for those who subscribe to it. At the same time, the amount of ads seen by those who do not own premium, has increased considerably. In this case, more ads might be a means to get to a no-ads-at-all situation, with ads becoming so ubiquitous and intrusive that they will likely push more and more people towards premium. We are not experiencing the death of online advertising, not in the least, but a battle to change the status quo may have begun.
A new web browser tries to change the paradigm: Brave 1.0
In this context, as well as that of the growing concern for personal data privacy on the internet (see GDPR), some developers are grabbing this opportunity to launch solutions that promise to reset the foundations of the internet. One such example is the new web browser that was officially launched on recently (November, although it has been around before the official launch and claims to already have 9 million users), by two of the co-founders of Mozilla and Firefox, and the name of this project (Brave 1.0) seems to be quite appropriate at this time. It is a brave initiative to change the current state of affairs in internet browsing. Their business model prides itself in “guaranteeing privacy and ending surveillance capitalism”. Strong words indeed. Brendan Eich and Brian Bondy, the creators behind the concept, immediately came out on reddit, to do an IAmA and give more details on the launch:
“(…)we launched the 1.0 version of our privacy web browser, Brave. Brave is an open source browser that blocks all 3rd-party ads, trackers, fingerprinting, and cryptomining; upgrades your connections to secure HTTPS; and offers truly Private “Incognito” Windows with Tor — right out of the box. By blocking all ads and trackers at the native level, Brave is up to 3–6x faster than other browsers on page loads, uses up to 3x less data than Chrome or Firefox, and helps you extend battery life up to 2.5x.
However, the Internet as we know it faces a dilemma. We realize that publishers and content creators often rely on advertising revenue in order to produce the content we love. The problem is that most online advertising relies on tracking and data collection in order to target users, without their consent. This enables malware distribution, ad fraud, and social/political troll warfare. To solve this dilemma, we came up with a solution called Brave Rewards, which is now available on all platforms, including iOS.”
There are quite a few statements in there that are worth a more in depth discussion. Speed is something we will have to do further checks on, but, so far, using Brave does seem to save a few seconds here and there on page load, which could amount to significant time savings. But the bigger implications, in our opinion, go far beyond this advantage, if this browser were to gain a following in the future and it has to do with implications for online advertising as well as implications for data analytics.
The implications of a 3rd party blocking browser on advertising
Although it appears that the creators of Brave would support an ad-free internet, their statement is clear on the fact that they acknowledge that many publishers rely heavily on ad revenue. So what they propose, would not entirely remove advertising, but it would rather change an ad monopoly for another. All the targeting done by Google becomes obsolete and is replaced by an opt-in system with three components:
- Rewards for opting-in to see ads, based on your preferences. In this system, the money from the advertiser is split three ways, between the publisher where the ad is seen, Brave and the user him-/herself. So part of the advertisers’ money, spent to convince a user to buy something, actually goes to the user that needs to be convinced. Am I the only one to think this partial reversal of roles is a bit funny? I never thought someone would pay me to see their ads, with no other strings attached. It remains to be seen to what extent this sort of a system will be able to stay free from abuse by users bent on taking rewards without having a legitimate interest in the products and ads they are seeing. People getting paid to view ads sounds dangerously close to the concept that made “click farms” famous. Time will tell. It is probably too early to assess that. Brave may have solutions for this and I am sure they will have considered it. I doubt anyone will be allowed to get rich on rewards. By the way, these rewards are paid in a crypto-currency called BAT (Basic Attention Token). Also of note is the fact that this sort of advertising is designed as such to protect the anonymous status of the user, and Brave claims “no personal data leaves the browser”..
- Auto-contribute — this is where the wish of my beer pals becomes true. Brave allows you to set a monthly contribution you want to pay to publishers that have been “Brave-verified”. They will split that amount between publishers, depending on the amount of attention you give to each of them during your browsing experience. Attention is measured by Brave and it probably includes dwell time on the page, actions taken on it and, perhaps, some sort of metric resembling the bounce rate.
- Tips — the user has the possibility, from within the browser, to directly award small amounts of money (BAT) to the publishers whose content they appreciate, which is the exact same model Wikipedia is using right now.
It is important to note that all of these features are optional as is the blocking of 3rd party scripts. A user can opt to disable their shields at any time.
As I already suggested, while this new advertising system (not entirely new, but rather a combination of existing models) may bring some very interesting features and could prove to be a success, there have to be questions raised about the monopoly it would likely form when all online ads would be controlled by the browser. It also remains to be seen if this system would manage to achieve high standards for the relevance of the ads it will promote and if the revenue paths it brings forward will be able to support its’ activity, as there is not a big incentive for users to spend any money or time watching ads on the Brave platform right now. On the other hand, many users might be happy with the system, but most advertisers will likely not be. Most likely, they will become totally dependent on Brave, even more than they are now on Google, with very little control left in their own hands.
The implications of a 3rd party blocking browser on data analytics
As mentioned before, the protection of personal data has been a growing concern and it has also affected some providers of data analytics. In particular, Google Analytics has been under heavy attack in countries like Germany, with hundreds of thousands of complaints of breach of GDPR filed against websites using the tracking system. The issue here is that clearly separate informed consent must be given by the user on the use of personal data by this type of 3rd party. This cannot come in the form of a simple pre-ticked banner box. Website owners must make sure to comply to this, or they will face heavy fines.
The Federal Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information, Ulrich Kelber, has publicly urged website owners to check if they are doing what is needed in order to obtain explicit consent if 3rd parties, such as Google Analytics, use the data collected for their own purposes. The issue is more salient with Google Analytics because of the way it uses data tracking to connect to its’ other services, which of course involve advertising.
It is in this context that Brave makes the promise to block all web tracking too, in order to fully protect the privacy of the individual. While we may agree with the underlying principle, what about those web tracking services other than Google Analytics that actually comply to GDPR laws? Why penalize them and their clients, if the data is not used for their own purposes? Some tracking tools are not connected to any 3rd party advertising company, nor do they have their own advertising system. Furthermore, the data is completely anonymous and cannot be connected to any particular individual. The data these apps gather is solely for the purpose of helping website owners better understand their visitors and make better websites for them. So, by these standards, they comply to the rules of GDPR and would not need an explicit, separate consent for the gathering of data.
Blocking this sort of 3rd party does not help the purpose to protect the individual in any way, but it will most certainly lead to poorer user experience on the websites using tracking analytics. The lack of data would be keeping website owners in the dark, forcing them, once again, to rely on the attention measurements offered by Brave as their only source of data. Perhaps the whole plan would be for Brave to provide a tracking alternative of its own in the future. Whatever the envisioned plan is, there is no way things in the world of internet browsing would be able to function normally without data tracking analytics, and the undiscriminating crusade against all of them will do more harm than good.
There is no black and white in the world of online advertising and visitor data analytics today. Striving to protect the privacy of individuals and respecting their boundaries is a praise-worthy principle and it should not come into question. However, if the measures taken to protect this are too drastic, we may end up on the losing side, from all perspectives: publishers, advertisers and, most of all, users. The current status quo, with its’ own defects (that are being worked on), has been behind an undeniable evolution in terms of internet usage. We may need to think twice before completely denouncing it and replacing it with other solutions, whose future is still uncertain.
On the other hand, big changes come from revolutionary actions, so they shouldn’t automatically be rejected either. There will always be those who oppose and those who support change. And in the world of the internet as we know it, this also comes from various parties, whose interests are, at least in part, financial. But beyond any mercantile interests, we should also try to objectively predict how certain changes will affect all those involved in the complex ecosystem that is the internet. In the end, we are all users and in this sense we share a common goal of having a functional, safe and, if possible, free internet.