Could the ethical use of distributed blockchain ‘labor’ replace digital advertising?

Politifact’s website was hacked back in October. The hackers installed some JavaScript behind the scenes that secretly commandeered the CPU cycles of anyone who visited PolitiFact’s website and forced them to mine a cryptocurrency called Monero. This created a vast, distributed network of unknowing Monero-miners. The culprits were eventually caught, in part, because they didn’t reduce the burden that the act of undercover mining placed on each user’s individual CPU which, according to The Register, “hammered the visiting machine’s processor, taking up 100 per cent of spare processor capacity.”

Then, late last month, Ars Technica wrote about another example of so-called “drive-by cryptomining,” another attempt to secretly turn other people’s machines into clandestine crypto-miners. The article continues, “One researcher recently documented 2,500 sites actively running cryptomining code in visitors’ browsers, a figure that, over time, could generate significant revenue.”

This is obviously shady behavior, but it also seems to work as a concept, which begs the question: What if someone did the exact same thing, but wasn’t shady about it? What if they announced to their users and visitors that, instead of bombarding them with pop-up ads and pleas for donations, they would allow visitors to simply opt-out of the ads in exchange for, say, 25 percent of their CPU cycles while visiting that site?

Now multiply that portion of an individual’s CPU cycles by the number of daily visitors to a large news website like The Guardian or the New York Times. Might that be enough to “generate significant revenue,” or at least enough to warrant further exploration of this concept? Bitcoin mining networks have already proven eight times faster than the world’s top 500 supercomputers, so it’s not a question of power or speed.

I don’t personally know enough about cryptocurrency — or even basic computing science, for that matter — to say whether or not this idea is even plausible. I’m also not saying that this idea has to be limited to mining cryptocurrencies, although I can’t think of anything else with such a direct potential monetary value attached to it.

Still, the idea of using a distributed network of processors to accomplish a task — in this case, mining Monero — is apparently attractive and viable enough for malicious hackers to take advantage of it. The only thing separating the apparently-effective-but-shady stuff they’re doing without our knowledge or consent is the shady part. Why can’t we rework and appropriate that same concept and turn it into something valuable and, most importantly, ethical and above-board?


Joe Amditis is the associate director of the Center for Cooperative Media. Contact him at amditisj@montclair.edu.

About the Center for Cooperative Media: The Center is a grant-funded program of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. The Center is supported with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation and Democracy Fund. Its mission is to grow and strengthen local journalism, and in doing so serve New Jersey residents. For more information, visit CenterforCooperativeMedia.org.

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