Brendan Eich wants to make your eyeballs worth something again.
Worth something to you, that is. Publishers have long profited by serving advertisements to their readers; the more clicks and views they collect, the more money they make.
But readers themselves go uncompensated. Worse yet, they are tracked and surveilled; their personal data is harvested and resold; they can wind up the victims of malware embedded in harmless-looking ads. Their attention as they trawl the web is a valuable commodity—but not one they can cash in on.
Publishers themselves often get a raw deal. They can be defrauded by third-party ad exchanges, fooled by malicious bots into paying out for inflated viewer numbers. There is abuse at both ends of the system.
"This digital ad system is completely unregulated and there is no secure way, no cryptographic protocol, to know that an ad is embedded in a real publisher page or that a real user saw it," said Eich, the founder and CEO of Brave Software.
These are the problems that plague digital advertising, as Eich sees it, and he wants to solve them as so many technologists today want to solve so many problems: by issuing a digital token on a blockchain.
Announced Thursday, the new token—dubbed the Basic Attention Token, or BAT—will be integrated with the Brave web browser, allowing users to earn digital currency by opting to view ads. Like most such tokens, BATs will live on Ethereum, a popular open-source blockchain, and be distributed through a monthlong crowd sale, set to begin next month.
Such crowd sales, known as initial coin offerings, or ICOs, are an increasingly popular fundraising method for startups and open-source software projects. Only last week came the news that the venture capital firm Blockchain Capital is planning to issue its own digital token in April to raise $10 million for a new fund.
In 2016, a total of $236 million was raised in dozens of ICOs. Brock Pierce, a managing partner at Blockchain Capital, said this year could see hundreds more. There has been some speculation in legal circles that certain of these offerings may constitute the sale of unregistered securities, but the federal government has so far declined to interfere.
As web users have become more aware of the negative aspects of digital ads, they have installed ad-blocking software in droves. Ad blockers such as uBlock Origin and Disconnect are now present on more than 600 million computers and mobile devices, according to a blog post Brave published on Thursday.
Brave took this to the next level. When it launched in public beta, in the summer of 2016, as a fast, ad-free alternative to Google Chrome and other popular browsers, it had ad-blocking software baked right in. This integration yields page load times three to eight times faster, on iOS devices, than what Chrome provides, according to Eich.
But now Eich wants to build a better mouse trap.
In the new blockchain-based advertising platform he envisions, users who agree to receive ads will have their attention monitored and will be rewarded with BATs. Machine-learning algorithms will digest their habits in order to serve them with fewer, but more relevant, ads.
Where this monitoring differs from the sort of surveillance Eich deplores is that users' data will be encrypted and stored privately in their own browsers, not shared with Brave or with third parties. The blockchain will store not their individual browsing habits but rather aggregate numbers and interesting trends, yielding a more transparent ad market.
Publishers, in turn, will earn BATs when users view the ads they serve, though they will be paid in ordinary dollars. Brave plans to partner with Coinbase or a similar company to handle the conversion of cryptocurrency into fiat.
In an interview, Eich took care to describe the token as a necessary but not sufficient condition for the reformation of digital advertising.
"We're solving several problems and the token is only part of the solution," he said, "but the token is crucial because it remonetizes the user back into the system. You need a unit of account that prices the user back in."
Brave has not yet set a funding goal for the BATs crowd sale. Eich says the company is waiting for the price of ether—the cryptocurrency that investors will exchange for BATs when they participate in the ICO—to stabilize.
This isn't the first time that Brave has tried to help publishers. From the beginning, the browser has encouraged users to support content creators they like by sending micropayments from a Brave digital wallet. Once the wallet is set up, a user can fund it with an existing bitcoin wallet and send payments anonymously. About 48,000 wallets have been created by Brave users so far, and more than 200 publishers have signed up, Eich says.
Eich admits that Brave may face an "uphill battle" convincing publishers, who were not fans of his decision to incorporate ad blockers into his browser, to switch from the devil they know to an entirely new advertising platform. But sticking with the status quo isn't a viable option for them, he said, even if some remain in denial.
"The smart set knows that ad blocking is here to say, and you shouldn't mistreat the cohort that uses it," he said. "It's a growing cohort, but a lot of publishers are still raging against the night."