It hasn't even fully launched yet, and already it has incited a call from livid publishers including New York Times Co., The Washington Post, Tribune Publishing Co. and others, to shut it down.
Brave is a new Internet browser, developed by former Mozilla CEO Brendan Eich, which has an ad blocker built right in for users who choose to see no ads. Currently in beta and planning its wider release in August, Brave is jumping into the already heated debate around ad blocking. But it's not Brave's ad blocker that's getting the most attention: It's another user option, which would not just strip ads out of publishers' pages, but also replace them with ads the browser itself is in charge of selling – and from which it would make money. Brave is essentially blurring the lines between a Web browser and an ad network. It proposes sharing 55 per cent of that revenue with publishers. But many are not buying it.
"Your plan to use our content to sell your advertising is indistinguishable from a plan to steal our content to publish on your own website," members of the Newspaper Association of America wrote in a letter last week, threatening legal action. (Emphasis theirs.)
The dispute speaks to a wider debate that is questioning the fundamental structure of the Internet right now: Advertisers say, accurately, that their ads make free content possible – free Facebook browsing, free articles to read, free videos – by paying publishers and other content creators to also show you ads. At the same time, a growing number of consumers and privacy advocates say, also accurately, that ads have become intrusive; slow down the loading time for Web pages; violate privacy by tracking people and collecting their data; and generally make the experience of using the Web worse. One maker of an ad blocker has calculated that heavy ads – which eat up mobile data as they load – could be costing iPhone users in the United States as much as $8.3-billion (U.S.) in excess data charges each year.
In Canada, 17 per cent of people have installed ad blockers on their desktop computers, according to a study conducted by the Interactive Advertising Bureau of Canada and comScore, which will be released early next month.
Mr. Eich says that for users who do turn on its "replacement" ads, the browser will only deliver lighter ads that don't slow pages down; and won't overload pages with the same kinds of "tags" – essentially, the mechanics of a Web page that are needed to make computerized (or "programmatic") ad buying work. He also says that while Brave will track users' behaviour online and will gather information about them that will be used to target ads to them, their personal data will be anonymized and won't be kept on Brave's servers.
But by forcibly taking over websites' ad space, critics say, Brave is violating publishers' intellectual property. Brave argues that the 55 per cent of revenues it proposes sharing with publishers is a better deal than they often get in the current digital ad ecosystem, where ads are sold by computerized systems and go through a number of middlemen.
"Is it a good deal if I can't turn it down? Do I get to have a counterproposal?" asked David Chavern, president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America. Publishers do not disregard the user discontent that has led to ad blocking, he added. "The whole digital advertising ecosystem is kind of a mess right now. We as publishers need to take on responsibility for cleaning up our own acts. In the meantime, that doesn't justify somebody just taking our content."
"It's another form of theft and extortion," said Sonia Carreno, president of IAB Canada.
Globally, the IAB has been working with publishers and advertisers to create lighter, less cumbersome advertising and to address users' concerns. Late last year, it released "LEAN principles" that propose a standard for ads that don't eat up data or slow down Web pages, that are non-intrusive, and that give people the option to opt out of being tracked. The organization is working with publishers on signing a charter to that effect.
"If it's creating an annoyance problem, affecting performance of browsers, the marketing community is always looking to improve on that front," said Wally Hill, senior vice president of government and consumer affairs at the Canadian Marketing Association. "I know that marketers are looking at doing that as we speak, and are conscious of that."
Ms. Carreno questioned whether marketers would be willing to associate with a browser such as Brave. "They're creating a kind of pirated environment," she said. " … Marketers will opt out of programs that are not playing nicely in the advertising ecosystem."
Whether Brave is able to attract enough users and advertisers to be viable, – not to mention overcome potential legal challenges – its proposal highlights a tension between the user experience of the Web, and the business that funds it, which is a major preoccupation of the industry right now. Brave proposes directing 15 per cent of its ad revenue to a digital bitcoin "wallet" for users; money they could either withdraw, if they authorize with BitGo, or which would be redirected to support the websites they visit most often. He's not the first to suggest people should be compensated for the increasingly lucrative use of their personal data: Publicis Groupe SA CEO Maurice Lévy suggested the same thing at an event in Toronto recently.
"The data should be yours," Mr. Eich said. "The model today has all these mysterious third parties running around … somebody used a metaphor: if you went to the grocery store and someone who put a flyer in your windshield followed you home. … We're trying to beat the current system. We want to clean it up and give users control of their data."