The new Brave web browser is trying to do something radically different with your boring old browser. Brave burst onto the scene at the start of 2016, positioning itself as the latest battleground in the war between ad producers and ad blockers. Brave is built on the promise of faster load times and better privacy protection by blocking web trackers and targeted ads. If Brave users agree to replace those ads with anonymous ads from the Brave network, the user will be paid in bitcoin. Being paid to surf has been the dream of many web aficionados and Brave promises to make it real.
The Philosophy Behind Brave
The “principal-agent conflict of interest” refers to the fact that browsers are the agents with one job – to serve up desired content to you, the principal. Browsers are free, so they pay for all their operational costs by selling ads, essentially serving up you to the advertisers. Browsers, just like anyone else, are going to prioritize the one who pays them.
Brave flips that model on its head to appeal to the growing number of web users who feel stalked and violated by excessive and intrusive browser tracking. Once there are enough users who have downloaded Brave, they will offer two primary modes of operation: ad replacement and ad removal.
The Two Modes of Brave
In ad replacement mode, Brave will block most ads and all tracking embedding in website content. It replaces that with ads within the private Brave network, served up anonymously. In-network advertisers still pay for impressions, but the websites earn only 55 percent of the profits. The other 45 percent is split three ways and paid out in bitcoin. Fifteen percent goes to Brave, 15 percent to the undisclosed ad-matching company Brave uses and 15 percent share to the users. The one catch is that you have to identify yourself to claim the bitcoin, according to federal law on money laundering.
For both users and publishers, Brave deposits the money into individual bitcoin wallets, and both parties must verify their identity to claim the funds. This requires an email and phone number for users and more stringent identification steps for publishers. Users who do not verify will automatically donate their share of the funds back to the sites they visit most.
In total ad removal mode, the user pays a fee to Brave directly to retain their privacy. You can pay for this service out of pocket by hooking up a credit card to your Brave wallet or you can pay those fees can be paid with the bitcoin earned by using the ad replacement mode. Some people would rather pay for this ad-free mode to be assured that the users, not the advertisers, are the priority.
What Advertisers Think of Brave
Brave’s business model is certainly a novel approach, and it is already made some advertisers furious enough to threaten legal action. A collection of the largest traditional media sites has banded together to sue Brave for copyright and trademark violation, contesting that Brave will use their content to sell its own ads. Their point is that ad revenue is the only thing keeping traditional media from collapsing in a free content world. If Brave attacks that source of revenue, they will respond aggressively. They have already determined to boycott the browser.
In response, Eich issued a fiery accusation: “The news industry has been an active participant in violating individual readers’ privacy by benefiting from non-consensual third-party tracking and ads. News industry leaders rightly decry the violation of privacy inherent in some NSA or FBI tactics, yet their own complicity in tracking individuals to even more invasive degrees is not addressed.” It is hard to argue with that when certain ads and brands start popping up with disturbing regularity across the expanse of a user’s webscape, even across devices.
Actually, paying for free content with user privacy has been the primary engine of the web’s growth curve since the beginning. Today, all online companies, browsers included, are struggling to find a way forward as online privacy/security becomes both less common and more valuable. Here’s a look back at how browsers got to this point.
How Brave Evolved From Early Browsers
You cannot get on the web without a browser, but once you are there, the ideal browser would just disappear. Over the years, browsers have evolved little enhancements and widgets to make themselves more valuable, such as bookmarks, plug-ins, filters and pop-up ad blockers. However, the essential form of the browser has not changed in nearly a quarter of a century. In this age of disruption, the reliable but boring browser has remained one of the few constants.
In the beginning, there was only Mosaic. When Tim Berners-Lee built the architecture of the web in the early 1990s, he and his colleagues at CERN viewed documents on a proto-browser called the WorldWideWeb. They should have known that you cannot give a browser the same name as the thing that it is browsing. For the rest of the world, if you were browsing the commercial/educational web in 1993, however, you were probably on Mosaic.
In the late 1990s, the technology beneath Mosaic split into Netscape Navigator and Internet Explorer (IE), which defined the next generation of browsers. Browsers like Cello and Spyglass came and went in flashes while Linux enthusiasts began flocking to a quiet Norwegian browser named Opera.
After the turn of the millennium, in the decade now nostalgically known as “The Aughts,” a new batch of browsers arose. The slow death of Navigator gave birth, like a phoenix, to Mozilla’s Firefox. One origin story is that the name “Mozilla” was a blend of Mosaic and Godzilla, suggesting the power they hoped to unleash. Unofficially, some in Mozilla’s open-source community claim that the name grew out of “Microsoft Killa,” with the idea that web-based applications would eliminate locally-installed desktop software, which was Microsoft’s main source of revenue. As it turned out, it was not the web but the mobile app ecosystem that essentially killed software. In the end, it may turn out that cloud-based applications (built in HTML5) will kill the mobile app ecosystem, but that remains to be seen.
After 2008, the mobile revolution split the world into iOS, Android and everybody else. Apple optimized their Safari browser for iOS. Meanwhile, Android came pre-installed with its own browser, simply called Browser, which is closely related to Google’s Chrome browser. This is also the time when Opera began to gain greater attention and downloads, especially for enterprise mobile devices, due to its tightened security and privacy upgrades. It was referred to as “the safe browser.”
Brave’s Competition Now
Today, IE still clings to 33 percent of the browser market, even though it is no longer being enhanced by Microsoft. Chrome takes second place with 24 percent. The second tier is made up of Firefox (6 percent), Safari (4 percent) and Opera (2 percent).
The rest of the market, almost half of it, is broken up among a constellation of smaller, specialized browsers and older versions of the top brands. For example, Blisk is a popular new browser built specifically for app developers, with pre-installed emulator mode so you can see how your code will run across the most popular devices and browsers. There is plenty of market share up for grabs for specialty browsers like Brave and Blisk.
Brave for Developers
From a developer’s perspective, mobile iOS version of Brave is based on Firefox iOS. On GitHub, Brave-specific code can be found at https://github.com/brave and in the brave dir. Brave for Android is housed at https://github.com/brave/browser-android. The components posted at those sites should be adequate for anything you want to build with Brave. Somewhat ironically, the desktop version of Brave is based on Chromium, the open source project that Google runs to feed code into its Chrome browser.
To demonstrate the company’s commitment to open source, the Brave development team recently posted all the details of the Brave bitcoin ledger on GitHub at https://github.com/brave/ledger/blob/master/documentation/Ledger-Principles.md. This also details how Brave separates users identities using Anonize, a cryptographic master token app that “allows the client and Brave Ledger to authoritatively agree on behavior without linking that behavior to personas, browsers or wallets.”
Brave’s New World
To sum up, there are five differentiators that make Brave unique:
- It can stop ad tracking and serve you anonymous replacement ads.
- It can load pages much faster by circumventing the bloat from adware.
- It seeks to create a user community around the browser.
- It can completely eliminate ads if you pay for the service, either with your preferred payment method or with payments you accrue by running Brave in ad replacement mode.
- It could pay you to surf, but only in bitcoin as a percentage of the Brave network’s ad revenue and only if you sign up for a Brave wallet, with an email and phone number in your name.
Be aware that Brave is still in its infancy, so none of the revenue sharing features have come online yet. It remains to be seen if there will ever be enough user interest and downloads to make this radical business model viable.