Q&A: JavaScript creator Brendan Eich puts Brave face on the Web.

Q&A: JavaScript creator Brendan Eich puts Brave face on the Web
Credit: Josef Steufer/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

Brendan Eich's latest project involves a browser that automatically blocks ads and trackers, protects user privacy

Best known as the creator of JavaScript and a co-founder of Mozilla, Brendan Eich these days has moved on to a new project. He is CEO of Brave Software, which wants to “build a better Web” that puts users in control of their data, blocking trackers by default. Brave is building its own browser and promotes micropayments and better ads as an alternative to poorly performing ads that drive users to blockers. InfoWorld Editor at Large Paul Krill recently met with Eich to discuss his latest venture.

InfoWorld: What is the principal mission of Brave Software? Your slogan says you are building a better Web.

Eich: There’s a simple answer, which is to block everything -- it makes the browser faster. But we’d like to try two things on top of that. One of them is a better way to do anonymous, highly private ads -- ads that don’t involve tracking. That’s because we think most people are used to the Web being funded by ads. They don’t want to necessarily pay for content.

The second thing is a micropayments channel. There’s a connection between the two so the users can pay for content if they want to. Again, it’s anonymous, a very small payments channel that doesn’t require you to give your credit card. It’s a browser-based micropay wall.

We block everything for speed and privacy and safety, given the malvertisement that’s getting into the ad supply chains. One of the things we’re trying is better ads to make payments work for publishers without users being tracked and then on top of that a micropay wall so users who want to pay and have an ad-free experience can. When you go through the micropay wall there are no ads put back in.

InfoWorld: How would users pay? Would you have to put a credit card in?

Eich: You could. We’re trying to give users a revenue share from the better ads because we think they should get the same thing that we get: 15 percent of the revenue. When people talk about ad revenue, it’s a very mysterious pie that’s being carved up. But in the world of what’s called programmatic ads (even "programmatic" is not well-defined), [which are] the standard-sized ads that are placed more automatically, those ads are done through so many third parties and intermediaries that the payments are better understood.

A study by the IAB [Interactive Advertising Bureau] in 2014 said the trackers and the middle players (the demand-side platform that helps the advertisers put their ads in and the supply-side platform that helps the publisher put his space up for auction and all the in-betweens who optimize) take 55 percent of the revenue out of the pie. That was in 2014. In this system, there’s the advertising or buy side or demand side, where the marketers spend the money to create ads that they put in the system. The supply side, which is the publisher’s side, is supplying empty space for those ads.

InfoWorld: Are users ready to pay for content?

Eich: No. That’s why we’re giving a revenue share because they will automatically trickle out to the top 10 or more sites and it will start micropaying for them. What we’re doing, in effect, is we’re saying let’s take the whole system that’s kind of an adversarial, inefficient system, with 55 percent or more taken up by the middle players. Let’s replumb it through the browser because all of the ad loading is done by the browser anyway. That’s why ad block works.

I talked to somebody who didn’t realize this. They thought that either the ads come to the publisher and the publisher puts them on the website as if they were part of the publishers so-called first-party cut. That’s not how it works. Another person I talked to thought, “Oh, when you go to The New York Times, isn’t that just one big blob that you download at once and you don’t really get to pick and choose?” Neither is true.

The browser actually gets the indexed HTML page and that’s a set of instructions: the HTML markup says load this image, load that script. That’s where the browser does its job normally. That’s where ad blockers can go and say, “No, we’re not going to load that script. No, forget that ad.” That’s where we can do even more on behalf of the user. We’re replumbing the system to have a lower overhead and higher privacy approach to ads and payments so you don’t have to give your credit card number.

InfoWorld: What kind of buy-in do you need from the content providers?

Eich: That’s the magic of doing a browser. If we do it in the browser and we use Bitcoin under the hood as a way of permission-less payments, we don’t need their buy-in. We drop their revenue share, then they get 55 percent direct. I mentioned the users get 15 percent but it automatically micropays out to their top 10 sites, let’s say. That means that the total share with the publishers, in aggregate, is 70 percent.

InfoWorld: Are the users getting money back on this?

Eich: Yes. They can take it out if they want but by default we will micropay their top 10 sites. We want to give the user a sense that their wallet has some change in it, to get them used to the micropayments happening. Maybe some will supplement those funds with their own to go ad-free on even more sites.

InfoWorld: So Brave Software is not really about ad-blocking? Hasn’t every browser already had that?

Eich: If you use Brave now, we block third-party cookies, trackers, and ads and you’ll see no other browser do that by default. Google can’t afford to because even though they allow ad blockers, they’re off by default and the number of users who will adopt them is a rising tide, but it’s still a minority. Google has this big revenue business, DoubleClick ads. I think it’s not in their interest to ship an ad blocker by default. If they did it, they would hurt their own business. If they tried to allow DoubleClick ads through, they’d be in antitrust trouble very fast.

InfoWorld: Is there more to Brave than the browser? What other type of technologies are you playing off?

Eich: We have the bitcoin payment system and that’s all server side. Our aggregator for payments does all the micro- to macro-payment processing, then uses the block chain to record the larger debits and credits across the payment chain. So we’re building a server-side piece for this that is highly private and anonymous. We don’t identify users at all.

When you used Brave, you didn’t have to sign in, you didn’t have to give any information. We know that you installed it so we can recognize when you start it up again -- and I hope you start it up again. Then if you want to pair a mobile device with a laptop, we’ll let you do that with the camera on the smartphone and the QR code on the laptop. We don’t want your identity. All the data we use for our better ads work is based on data on the device. It’s not taken out by us.

We’re not a tracker either. There are some easy misconceptions about Brave that we’re trying to be a tracker or we’re trying to pocket all the money ourselves. Neither is true. We’re building something that hasn’t really been done before.

You can think of it as Google puts all your data in their cloud where they can crunch it and make better use of it for them and you get some great search. You get ads through their DoubleClick business. But other than that, all your data goes to their cloud and they get the benefit of that. They do things like cluster you into groups of users, which adds some value to marketers because when they’re advertising to you, it isn’t always important to know you’re Paul Krill, especially early in a more tentative marketing campaign. They want to know that you’re of a certain age and certain income or maybe have a certain brand loyalty. That’s more valuable. You’re more valuable as a part of a crowd than as an individual.

That’s why Google clusters. It’s their forte. They’ve built this cloud supercomputer for search, and they bought the DoubleClick business, and they put them together over time.

InfoWorld: How is Brave going to generate revenue?

Eich: Two ways: One is the better ads business, assuming we can build it up. It will eventually involve the advertisers paying when they see a sign that their ads are working. They have to have signals back from the ads being viewed, for instance, if it’s a cost-per-impression model. We will share that revenue: 15 percent with ourselves, 15 percent with our partner so nobody who helps us match ads without identifying the user -- they don’t see a user cookie either. And 15 percent to our users, that’s the part that trickles for an ad-free top 10. The remaining 55 percent goes direct to the publishers based on the ad impressions.

We’re building what you might think of as a publisher business. Think of our users and the history of their surfing over a month as one big aggregator, a big website like a Feedly or a Flipboard. Because we block everything, there’s a lot of ad spaces liberated that we can then fill with our own anonymous ads without compromising the users’ privacy, without letting their data leak out of their devices.

InfoWorld: There’s an advertising model to it?

Eich: It’s an advertising model: 15 percent to us, to our users, to our partner, then 55 percent to the publisher so the aggregate is again 70 percent to the publisher. It’s this magic number from the app store, 70 percent rev share, also from Facebook Instant Articles.

InfoWorld: When is this going to be ready for prime time?

Eich: The 1.0 release is scheduled for late August. We’re working with an agency to get some trial ads through. We’re not going to charge for them. We’re going to verify that they don’t lead to any data leaks or identification of the user. When that works, we can then start scaling that business up. We have to get the ads directly from the brands and agencies ourselves. We can’t use the ad networks that are full of seven degrees of business separation. They’re full of tracking cookies and pixels. Sometimes they have malware. We cannot use those ads.

InfoWorld: Brave will obviously work on Mac; it will work on Windows. Are you going to have mobile versions also?

Eich: We do. Last month, we got them into iOS Apple App Store right away, then we got them into the Google Play store after. App Store rules require you to say it’s a useful product now, and they require in the Apple case that you call it 1.0. We actually do call it 1.0 in the App Store.

InfoWorld: What kind of market share would you like to see Brave have with its browser in three years?

Eich: In three years, I’d like to be in the several tens of millions at least. I think in the one- to 18-month timeframe I’d like to be at 10 million users because I think we can prove that the model works.

InfoWorld: If I access Facebook on Brave, is it going to block all the ads? Won’t Facebook be upset with that?

Eich: It should block the third-party ads. I mention those because they involve tracking across sites. This is something that evolved on the old Web standards 20 years ago. We don’t block first-party ads if they don’t involve tracking.

Say there’s Elle online, an online digital media website, and they have an article on some topic of interest to the readers. They can get a brand deal, say from L’Oréal, and they can put images and other things to make that ad work directly into their site. As long as they don’t involve tracking, we won’t block them.

Most ad blockers won’t block them. It’s tracking that’s the issue, it’s not ads per se. That means we're not going to block Facebook ads that look like part of Facebook. Their tracking is on their own server side behind the scenes since they have all the users signed in to their app or their website. It means Google Search ads we don’t block. Those are what we call first-party.

When you search at Google you get 10 blue links plus the ads. You chose to do that. If those ads don’t track you and we block the third-party ways they might track you and you click on one, that’s a first-party interaction. You went there, you saw it, you clicked on it, it’s your choice. We don’t block them.

Facebook Like buttons, people worry about them because they’re put onto other publisher’s sites and people think, are they spying on me? Well, we block all the ways they might do that. We block all the tracking. But if you’re signed into Facebook, you’re cookied in Facebook already as a logged-in Facebook user and you click on a Like button, it’s your choice.

InfoWorld: Is Brave’s technology open source?

Eich: All open, 100 percent. The design documents are coming out in the open because we want to bring the world along with us.

InfoWorld: How much JavaScript is involved in Brave’s technology?

Eich: We’re using Swift, the programming language on iOS and we’re using Java on Android to be competitive with the best of the breed. But on the laptops we’re using a framework called Electron. That’s a JavaScript framework for viewing desktop apps, laptop apps, and that’s what we use for our entire user interface.

InfoWorld: This isn’t really about micropayments in lieu of looking at ads. There’s more to it, isn’t there?

Eich: It’s looking at content. Think of it as 10 cents an article paywall in the browser where you don’t have a credit card number or PayPal like you do today with The New York Times or Wired.

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