The Brave browser approach to privacy

The Brave browser approach to privacy

The Brave browser approach to privacy

Brave is an internet browser that aims to provide users with privacy-protected browsing while at the same time serving them with advertisements. Their approach is interesting and worth a look.

Caveats and disclosure

This article is not investment advice.
This article is not endorsed by my employer.
I have holdings of BAT.

Personal privacy is one of my favourite topics and I have written about it numerous times, most recently of Google Chrome’s recent plan to block third-party advertisements. 

Background

Before we explore Brave, let us consider some of the parties currently involved in the browser ecosystem and their motivations:

  1. Browser provider
    Google (makes Chrome) makes money off advertising on Google Search. Mozilla (maker of Firefox) gets paid royalties by search providers (Google, Microsoft, etc.) for placing their search engine as the default in various regions. Apple and Microsoft need their own default browsers in their software ecosystems and have provided these – Safari, Edge and Internet Explorer. These also make money either through search royalties or through their own search engine (Bing for the Microsoft products).
  1. User
    Users want to have a good web browsing experience. Based on the individual, they may care about their privacy to varying extents. They want access to content for low or no fees. They are likely to be annoyed by pop-up advertisements or ads that play sounds, but they may be tolerant toward ads that are relevant to their needs. 
  1. Website / content provider
    Website owners want to make money off their websites. Frequently this is through goods or services provided through the websites. In some cases, the websites provide consumable content. Content providers want to be compensated for their content. Compensation for content is especially a concern for traditional offline content providers such as newspapers that have been forced to move online and have struggled to compete with newer outlets or even amateurs who can easily create or reproduce content while not necessarily being concerned with quality or rigour of reporting.

It is clear enough that advertising provides strong incentives for various parties in this ecosystem: free content for users and money for content providers and browser providers. This became a privacy issue when browser and content providers started collecting, storing and sharing user browsing habits in order to optimally tailor the advertisements. Google, as the largest advertising company in the world, has justifiably been a major concern of privacy advocates. This has not prevented their Chrome web browser from dominating the browser market. Google is now moving forward with its Privacy Sandbox, a technology that groups users into “cohorts” with similar interests to provide them with relevant ads while preserving their privacy as individuals to a certain extent.

Brave

Brave came on the scene as a browser focused on privacy.

New tab on Brave

Their solution was to pay users to view “privacy-preserving” ads. 

Ads in Brave are opt-in

By default, users are not shown ads on Brave. The user has to manually enable them. 

The ads that are shown are of a different nature from traditional browsing ads. Brave ads are pop-up ads, which happen to be unobtrusive. They appear in the corner of the screen and disappear after a few seconds if the user does not click on them.

A pop-up ad that displays while using Brave

Brave actively incentivises users to view those ads by paying them, using another hot technology – cryptocurrency. Brave released the ERC-20 token called Basic Attention Token (BAT) to fuel their ecosystem. Users get paid in BAT for their “attention”, even if it is just by seeing a pop-up in the corner; Brave does not pay extra for clicking the ad. That is the user’s choice, based on whether the ad is useful to them, and not based on a reward. Once a user has enabled Brave rewards, the rewards that they have accumulated are shown on the new tab.

The user can then use these BATs to reward the content providers who provide them interesting content. E.g. I have set up this website to accept BAT tips. If you are viewing this webpage using Brave, you will see the triangular BAT logo and can tip me for the content here.

Click the BAT logo to tip the website

Brave provides additional information provided by the website owner.

The first step to tip

As of the time of writing, the tipping system needs some work. There was no free-form field to allow the user to tip what they wanted.

Second step to tip

That results in a content provider who is paid for their effort and a user who did not get tracked or have to deal with otherwise annoying ads. Where do the user’s BAT rewards come from? They are paid by the advertisers who have paid fiat money (such as the US dollar) to acquire the BAT for their advertising needs.

Brave has a number of other plans for their browser and for the ecosystem. This includes the ability to buy cryptocurrencies right from the browser, integrations with third party wallets and others, so I expect we will soon be able to do more stuff with BAT than just tip and speculate on price. In any case, the focus of this article is privacy, not the cryptocurrency potential. So moving on…

Privacy

How does Brave provide relevant ads to users and therefore the greatest value to the advertisers? Brave advertisements are pre-loaded onto the browser at certain times, unlinked to the actual browsing. And then, analytics on ad-relevance is collected through a technique called Randomised Response. Randomised response is not new; it was proposed in 1965 and used in surveys to get answers to questions which the responders would be uncomfortable answering. It provides a method which tells the survey makers nothing about the individual responder, but a sufficiently accurate picture about the population that was surveyed. While Brave may have done studies on the effectiveness of their methods for advertisers, it will probably be a while before comparative effectiveness of their and Google’s techniques are undertood through independent research. With respect to privacy, the advantages of the randomised response method appear clear at the moment.

What data does Brave collect? I will just quote Brave here.

Even with Brave Rewards enabled, we never collect your browsing history or similar information, and we can’t derive this information from your contributions to content creators and sites. Instead, we aggregate contributions among all Brave users, and we cannot trace contributions to individual users, or link any of your contributions together.

If you verify ownership of your Brave Rewards wallet with Uphold (Brave’s wallet provider), direct contributions you make will be processed by Uphold as part of your Uphold account. When you make a direct contribution, Brave sends all the details of that transaction to Uphold so that they can execute the transaction. 

I am interested to know how Brave and BAT evolve over the next five years and whether they will be a major part of the internet as Google Search and Google Chrome are today. My hope is for them or others to succeed in the goal of making our internet browsing indeed private and pleasant.

References

VijayLuiz.com – Google Chrome to end third-party cookies: the privacy implications

Google Ads – Building a privacy-first future for web advertising (describes Google’s new approach with “FLoCs”

Brave

CoinDesk – What is the ERC-20 Ethereum token standard?

What is BAT? – What makes BAT valuable? (describes the value of BAT for advertisers)

Github – Randomized response for private advertising analytics (describes how BAT collects anonymous advertising analytics)

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