The creator of JavaScript is out to upend the ad industry

brendan_eich

Brendan Eich reinvented the web. Now he wants to upend the advertising industry.

Eich created JavaScript, the world’s most widely used programming language. As the co-founder of Mozilla, the organization behind the Firefox web browser, he helped end Microsoft Internet Explorer’s reign as the world’s most popular way to navigate the web.

Now he hopes to shake things up with Brave, a startup developing a browser for desktop and mobile that blocks ads and replaces them with, well, other ads. If successful, Brave could essentially flip the traditional advertising model on its head. Instead of paying publishers or advertising networks, advertisers will pay the browser maker.

The big idea is to block advertisements and tracking scripts that pillage your personal data and replace them with ads supplied by the browser—–ads that respect your privacy and don’t slow your computer to a crawl or tax your phone’s battery. According to the plan, a cut of the advertising revenue will go to the site owners and to users themselves. Brave hopes to be able to pay publishers 55 percent of the revenue generated by an ad, which he says should be more than they make from a typical advertising network. The company would pay its own advertising network partners 15 percent and keep 15 percent for itself. The remaining 15 percent would go back to users, and the company plans to implement some sort of screening process to ensure that real people, not bots, are doing the surfing.

Eventually, the company hopes to let users pay to opt out of ads altogether. If the model works, the company hopes its technologies will become standards that other browsers use to protect privacy.

Ideally, Brave will spur a transfer of power on the web back to the users. If you can pick and choose from among several browsers, you’re likely to choose the one that best respects your privacy. The trouble with the way online advertising works now is you don’t really know what sort of policies an advertising network has regarding the data it collects when you visit a page. Unless you disable JavaScript, you’re essentially opting in to whatever policies an ad network has in place as soon as you load a page. “So we invert this power structure and have the browser be an important part of the system instead of this passive window,” Eich says. The question is whether users—and advertisers—will be motivated enough to buy in.

Advertising Is Here to Stay

Eich co-founded Brave Software with former Khan Academy and Mozilla software developer Brian Bondy last year after stepping down as Mozilla’s CEO in 2014 amid an uproar over donations he made in support of California’s same-sex marriage ban. The epiphany that prompted the creation of a new browser, he tells WIRED, came when he realized that advertising as a business model for websites was here to stay. “Most people aren’t ready to pay for their content,” he says. “Some aren’t well off enough to pay for subscriptions, some don’t know how or don’t want to trust their credit card to a paywall.” But he also acknowledges that the deluge of resource-hogging banners and pop-ups on ad-supported sites understandably lead users to demand ways of blocking them. The problem, Eich says, is that the current crop of ad blockers are openly antagonistic toward sites’ survival.

“They feel like free-riding, or even starting a war,” Eich wrote in a post announcing Brave’s browser. “You may never click on an ad, but even forming an impression from a viewable ad has some small value. With enough people blocking ads, the Web’s main funding model is in jeopardy.”

Users are stuck between wanting to support the sites they love and wanting to be free of excessive advertising and privacy violating tracking scripts. With the Brave browser, Eich and company hope to find middle ground. The idea is to let those who don’t want to see ads support sites through donations and let everyone else support sites by viewing ads that are more relevant, less intrusive, and not so creepy. Since a web browser sees everything you do, it can make well informed predictions about what you might be interested in. Brave Software claims any data it shares will be anonymized and will not be shared without you first opting in. “No data is sent out to our cloud,” he says. “If you opt into storing data in our cloud, it will all be encrypted.”

Open to Debate

The Brave browser is entirely open source, meaning that anyone can inspect the code used to create it. Privacy advocates can audit the code to ensure Brave Software isn’t taking any data that it’s not supposed to.

But Brave’s approach, and the company itself, are likely to stir debate. Eich is still haunted by the Prop 8 controversy, and trying to make money while meddling with other companies’ advertisements has historically been contentious. “It seems to me that they are really asking for litigation at that point,” says Harvard Business School associate professor Benjamin G. Edelman. He points to Gator, a piece of adware that was bundled with other applications and that replaced banner ads in users’ web browsers with its own advertisements.

Klint Finley

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