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The Brave Browser is Brilliant

(posted in tech)

But probably not for the reasons you think…

When I was in grade school (I believe it was grade 7, which would put this somewhere around 1994 or 1995), I created my own currency. It was called Daddy-O dollars, and was minted with pen on post-it notes. Each bill sported a crude drawing of a spiky-haired kid with sunglasses in the middle and the monetary value written at each of the four corners. There was no printing press–each bill was lovingly hand-crafted by me, sitting at the desk in my room over the course of a single night.

I understood that the little drawings of my Daddy-O mascot, divided into piles of various denominations (1DD, 5DDs, 10DDs, and so-on), had no actual value in terms of real dollars. I knew that I couldn’t simply show up at school the next day and expect people to give me stuff in exchange for a bunch of worthless post-it notes. But that was OK, because I had a cunning plan.

That night I snuck down to the basement where my younger brother and I kept all of our toys, and gathered up some of what I considered to be my brother’s best stuff. Ninja Turtle figures, GI-JOEs, cap guns, board games, books, and all kinds of knick knacks. Along with my brother’s toys, I gathered a healthy supply of unhealthy snacks from the kitchen pantry. I shoved the goods into my backpack, topped them off with my fat stack of Daddy-O dollars, and dreamed all night of the riches that would undoubtedly soon be mine.

Let’s Talk about Brave

If you haven’t heard about the Brave browser, it’s a fork of Chromium–the same open source browser that serves as the foundation for Google Chrome. It blocks ads by default and claims to be focused on speed and privacy. The general consensus, when reading various reviews and opinions of it around the internet, seems to be that it excels on both of those fronts. I am personally skeptical of some of these reviews (for reasons that I will expand on later in this article) and of whether the speed and privacy gains go beyond what you could already experience by using ad blocking and privacy extensions for Google Chrome or Firefox. But that’s not the focus of this article.

The focus of this article is on the other feature of Brave that distinguishes it from other web browsers: its built-in advertising network and Ethereum-based crypto token exchange system.

Before I get into this, I’ll state that I don’t use Brave, I’m not affiliated with Brave or any other web browser in any way, nor do I have any information about Brave that can’t be gleaned through normal web searches. Everything I’m stating here is my personal opinion and if I get something wrong (which I probably will) I will make my best effort to update this article in a transparent way to reflect the truth. (The story about Daddy-O dollars is true to the best of my recollection of the incident, which is hazy at best.)

While Brave blocks ads on websites that you visit, you have the option of joining something called “Brave Rewards” which, bizarrely, opts you in to viewing ads generated by the browser itself. The pitch to sell this feature to users is multi-faceted:

  • The ads being blocked on the websites you visit are not respectful of your privacy, but the ads selected and displayed by Brave are.
  • Brave will reward you for simply browsing the web by “paying” you and the websites you visit in the form of crypto tokens called “Basic Attention Tokens” or BAT.
  • You have the ability to further support your favorite websites by “tipping” some of your BAT to them.

Sounds pretty neat on the surface, right? You’re going to be browsing the web anyway; you’re going to be inundated with ads anyway; why not get paid to do it and have the opportunity to directly support the websites you like in the process?

Let’s take a look at how this disrupts the normal relationship between users, content publishers (websites), and normal ad networks (such as Google). That relationship for a user not using Brave might look like this:

diagram 1

While I admit that this is probably an over-simplified model, it illustrates the fundamental idea. A user (that’s you) gives attention to their browser, and a content publisher provides content to the browser (by creating blog posts or news articles, for example). In order to earn money for the content they are creating, the content publisher employs an ad network. The ad network has relationships with several companies that wish to advertise their products, and those companies pay the ad network to put their ads into the web browser, and the ad network pays the content publisher for the right to do so amidst the content they have created.

Under this model the user gets to view the content they’re seeking, the content publisher gets paid for the content by the ad network, the ad network gets paid by the advertisers, and the advertisers get paid when users find their ads interesting enough to click on and then purchase goods or services from them.

Let’s take a look at what that model might look like for someone using Brave with the Rewards Program activated, not yet taking into account the BAT crypto tokens:

diagram 2

The first obvious difference is that the old ad network is nowhere to be found. You may notice that the revenue stream provided to the content publisher from the missing ad network has also vanished.

And as far as I’m concerned, that’s fine. Fuck ads. I personally use an aggressive battery of ad blocking techniques to eliminate them from my browser too–the content publisher just has to suck that up as part of how the internet works now. They can cry and whine and employ pathetic ad-blocker-blocking techniques and other annoyances to ensure that they slowly fade into obscurity, or they can switch to a donation or subscription model through which users like me can support them directly. Maybe those models suck too and the whole internet is just broken now. I don’t know. I’m not particularly interested in solving that problem myself.

Brave, on the other hand, claims that fixing this broken model is its core mission. They want to foster a radical new internet advertising economy in which content providers are paid for their efforts proportionally to the share of total user attention they can attract, and users are rewarded through not only increased privacy but are actually paid a hefty chunk of the generated ad revenue themselves.

Looking at that second relationship diagram doesn’t seem to paint that picture, however. Notice that all the money is going from the advertisers to Brave and then nowhere else. The content publisher probably wouldn’t have seen any money either way since this particular user would likely be blocking ads even if they weren’t using Brave. But what about that poor user? He doesn’t want to see ads. He hates ads just as much as I do. Thats why he’s trying Brave out in the first place. But Brave seems to have tricked him into looking at ads anyway for no reason other than to funnel all of that sweet advertising money away from the old ad network and content publisher and straight into Brave’s pocket instead.

“Aha!” you exclaim. “What about BAT?”

What about BAT?

The next day at school I whipped open my pack in the middle of the school yard, announced loudly that I’m selling a bunch of sweet toys and junk food, and started to give free Daddy-O dollars to anyone who expressed even the slightest interest in what I was doing. Friends, friends of friends, complete strangers–everyone got a few Daddy-O dollars for free and was invited to browse the Daddy-O Shop-O’ Treats.

You want a bag of chips? That will be two of the Daddy-O dollars that I just handed you for free. Thanks! A pack of gum? That will be one Daddy-O dollar. Oh you didn’t get any Daddy-O dollars? Here’s three on the house! The cheaper food items and the junkier of my brother’s toys quickly flew off the proverbial shelves, leaving just a few big-ticket items in my pack.

“How much for that cap gun?” a kid named Graham asked me. This is the moment I’d been waiting for. In my mind I was twirling my handlebar mustache and cackling. Several other kids who had been eyeing the remaining toys–including the cap gun and several action figures–turned to me expectantly, anxiously clutching what few post-it notes they still had in their greasy little palms.

“Oh, that?” I replied calmly. “Seventy five Daddy-O dollars.”

Of course, I was already aware that Graham could not afford this. None of the kids could. The most I handed out to any one kid was probably five DDs and they had all spent them on junk food, candy, and other worthless trash. Graham frowned and shook his head, then asked a question that sent shivers of glee down my spine.

“I only have one left, how do I get more?”

“Well, I’d be willing to buy stuff of yours for Daddy-O dollars, if you’ve got anything worth selling,” I said. Several kids opened their own back packs and started rooting around, and I was grinning like the Cheshire Cat.

Daddy-O Dollars and Crypto Tokens

Keep in mind that I didn’t understand a lick about any of this prior to doing a minimum of research for this article specifically, so my understanding may be incomplete or flawed.

If you wanted to create your own crypto token based on the Ethereum blockchain (same as BAT), here are the basic steps that would seem to be involved:

  1. Come up with a name for your token.
  2. Make a symbol for your token that would show up on crypto exchanges.
  3. Decide how many tokens you want to make.
  4. Write an ERC-20 smart contract that defines all of the above with some boilerplate code to handle balance lookups and transfers.

Admittedly, step 4 may sound daunting, especially for a non-programmer, but it can be done in under 50 lines of code, and probably just copy-and-pasted from an existing one with minor tweaks. It’s really not that hard. There are five minute video tutorials on YouTube that show you how to create crypto tokens.

Creating tokens is easy. And as implied in step 3, you can make as many as you want. Brave created 1.5 billion BAT just like that with the stroke of a keyboard. I probably spent way more time drawing my little Daddy-O dude on post-it notes than it took them to do that. The difficulty, obviously, lies in generating value for your crypto tokens–getting people to want them.

Let’s throw BAT into our relationship diagram:

diagram 3

Roughly once a month, Brave sends some BAT to the user as a reward for looking at ads. The user can choose to send some of that BAT back to Brave to hold on to for their favorite publishers to claim, but in order to actually claim that BAT the publisher must:

  • be aware that Brave and BAT is a thing;
  • register for a publisher account and BAT wallet with Brave;
  • and comply with a bunch of terms and policies dictated by Brave.

Let’s be honest; at least at present and for the distant foreseeable future, the percentage of content publishers taken as a whole across the entire internet who will actually receive any BAT for their content is negligible enough to be effectively zero. So while Brave is extending a purple BAT arrow toward the content publisher, in reality that’s just going straight back to a pool of BAT that Brave calls the “User Growth Pool” or UGP. I did leave a few purple crumbs for savvy content publishers to scoop up in the diagram, but they are almost certainly not to scale.

The BAT in the UGP, which I assume is just another wallet controlled by Brave, are given away to new users as an incentive to start using the Brave browser. This is in Brave’s interest, as more eye balls means more of that money flowing in from the advertisers. This is probably also where the BAT comes from for their referral program, through which a Brave user who writes a positively glowing review of the browser could entice other users to download and use Brave using their referral link and earn themselves some extra BAT. This is what I was referring to earlier when I mentioned I didn’t fully trust all of the reviews and articles out there raving about Brave’s incredible speed and ad-blocking capabilities–most of the ones I came across had referral links.

The only other thing that BAT adds to the relationship is the ability for users to also give their money to Brave in exchange for BAT. I suppose this is for those users who wish to make the gesture of donating BAT to content publishers without having to look at Brave’s ads, though, as mentioned, in reality are likely just donating it back to the UGP.

So why is BAT worth anything? Why do people want it?

In grade 7 I generated value for my Daddy-O dollars by giving them away for free, then selling a bunch of stuff that didn’t actually have any value to me so that other kids would perceive them as valuable. I kept the lion’s share of Daddy-O dollars to myself so that I could then use them to buy things that did have value to me from other kids. I was literally printing my own money, controlling my own economy, and trading ridiculous little post-it note doodles for actual tangible goods like digital watches and Far Side comic books.

Brave is certainly giving away BAT for free–that’s the whole purpose of the UGP, but I don’t entirely understand where the value is coming from. I have anecdotal evidence from a Brave user who earned around $25 worth of BAT (at current exchange rates) from just browsing the web normally over the course of a month. The idea that a single user browsing the web could have earned Brave anywhere near $25 in ad revenue is (coming from someone who worked in the ad industry for a couple years) completely absurd.

Is it just the hype around the lofty vision that Brave espouses in its marketing material? The idea of an ad network that respects privacy and pays both content publishers and consumers of that content is certainly appealing, right up there in too-good-to-be-true territory. Or maybe the kind of user who seeks out third party ad-blocking web browsers is also inclined to get excited and perceive value in a new crypto currency just for the sake of having a new crypto currency? I don’t know. I do know that if I were in Brave’s position–taking ad revenue from advertisers, not paying any of that to the publishers of the content over which I display the ads, and controlling a whole secondary crypto economy which serves as yet another potential source of revenue–well, let’s just say my Cheshire Cat grin would probably start hurting my face muscles after a while.

Conclusion

In the end, some teachers at my junior high caught wind of the ridiculous economy I had created. They contacted my parents and I was made to destroy my remaining stash of Daddy-O dollars and return all of the stuff I had bought from other kids. I also had to pay restitution to my brother by giving him some of my toys to replace the ones of his that I had sold.

My little scheme didn’t really play out as I had imagined. Will Brave’s? I don’t know. I just know that I’m not going to use their browser any time soon.

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