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Interview with Brendan Eich, CEO of Brave

Brendan Eich, Brave CEO

Today we are joined by none other than Brendan Eich, creator of the JavaScript programming language, co-founder of the Mozilla project and most recently CEO of Brave Software—a start-up that aims to transform the online ad ecosystem with faster and safer browsing.

Brendan is joining us to talk about the Brave browser—a new browser which automatically blocks ads and trackers and which will soon incorporate a micropayments system to offer users a choice between viewing selected ads, paying websites not to display them, or even going “ad free for free”.

Elio: Brendan, thank you for sparing the time to talk to us. I guess these past few months have been pretty busy for you?

Brendan: Very!

Elio: Could you start by telling us who Brave is tailored to? Is it aimed at your average user, or those who are more technically savvy?

Brendan: Brave is for all people who care about their privacy and browsing speed on the Web, which are closely related concerns due to the rise of intrusive, inefficient, and even dangerous third party advertising technology.


Elio: And how is using Brave different to the current status quo (i.e. users installing ad-blockers and privacy extensions)? For example, will it protect people from malware served via ads?

Brendan: Brave blocks ads and their tracking cookies and “pixels” by default, without taking fees to let some through as top ad-blocking browser extensions do. We restore secure https: links where possible, to use HTTPS everywhere. We will also defend against various kinds of fingerprinting.

On our roadmap: a private/anonymous ad system where the advertisers do not have the means to track our users, but will have authentic measures of ad performance that are truly anonymous. Our users’ data stays only on their own devices; even Brave servers never see it. All the ad matching logic runs on-device too. To prove valid ad impressions we use a new protocol based on zero-knowledge proofs.

From this business, we give our users the same cut of the gross ad revenue as we take.

Elio: The business model is obviously controversial. One concern I heard voiced recently went as follows: “If I don’t like Brave, but I own a site, I have no choice but to deal with them. They take the ad network I chose to deal with, replace it with their own, and make me go to them to get my money after they take their cut.” Can you answer that?

Brendan: Sure.

First, we have many ways of working with publishers. Our ad replacement system won’t replace all ads, instead focusing on the standardized “programmatic” ads that are most intrusive and even dangerous today. These ads are matched and placed by layers of intermediaries in a complex ecosystem. Many publishers run such ads, but no publishers can control exactly which ads win the “real-time bid” process by which programmatic ads are placed.

This is why malvertisement (ransomware) has been able to get onto the New York Times and the BCC websites. Almost all publishers use third party ads, but none wants to take the blame when attackers exploit the over-delegated, non-contractual system of middle-players in ad-tech.

Even setting aside malware, programmatic ads bother many users with inappropriate, intrusive, and even abusive practices. People do not like being retargeted across sites and devices, especially if the ad isn’t working — or has already worked and the user bought what was advertised. Brave is a browser, so with high privacy, only on your device, it can do a better job avoiding such pitfalls.

Finally, because of all the middle-players, the revenue left in the pie for the publishers is small and shrinking. The IAB 2014 Programmatic Ads study found 45% left for publishers, and I’ve heard of much lower shares. Brave has a transparent revenue share that gives 55% directly to publishers for the kind of ads we replace, which we believe will cleanly beat like for like ads.

On top of this, we will give 15% to our users, and by default trickle that back to their favorite sites. So the aggregate share of revenue to websites is 70% with Brave, same as with Facebook Instant Articles and Apple’s App Store.

A second way we will work with publishers addresses the concerns from some of the big ones, that their best inventory is direct-sold, or sold via private marketplaces, and they get better net revenue than from programmatic ads. We do not propose to replace these direct or even “native” ads; we agree publishers often place the best image for the slot in this kind of advertising.

The problem these publishers face from all ad-blockers (all else equal — especially discounting the top ad-blockers’ practice of taking fees prospectively to let ads and trackers through from the fee-paying network) is that direct/native ads are also full of tracking cookies and pixels (so-called from when 1×1 images were used; today, often pure JS scripts). Ad blockers worth their salt, and definitely Brave, block these trackers and signals for getting paid based on ad performance.

But with Brave, we have private on-device ad-matching and anonymous zero-knowledge-based impression and click confirmation. So we will work with top publishers to let their best ads place, but without any third party tracking systems that damage both privacy and speed.

A final way we hope to work with publishers: since we have a permissionless bitcoin-under-the-hood payments system built into Brave, which we use to share revenue with both users and publishers, we can add micropaywall features for each publisher. If a publisher needs several price tiers for micropaying readers, we will accommodate. We hope to innovate in the space between micropayments and “micro-kickstarters” so each article finds enough readers to pay its cost of production — and great articles win lots of reward on top of its kickstarter-like cost goal.

Elio: If I’m understanding things correctly, for Brave’s block-and-replace model to work, Brave will have to work directly with all of the big advertising networks. But at the same time, Brave will be blocking ads from those same advertising networks. Will those advertisers have to pay twice: once for the spot on the website—which gets automatically stripped out—and then again so that Brave will display their ad as well?

Brendan: Let me answer that in two parts.

If I’m understanding things correctly, for Brave’s block-and-replace model to work, Brave will have to work directly with all of the big advertising networks.

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