Paying for the Web

Update: my timing could not have been better, as the Brave folks announce a very similar model just 6 days after I originally wrote this.

I moonlight as a (lapsed, but still active) publisher on the Web at Beyond3D and, along with a good portion of everyone alive today, I also consume (a hell of a lot of) other folks’ published content. If you care about how the Web works, you probably have a fair idea of the stand-off happening between publishers and consumers, but just in case (and for my own amusement while I keep learning my new keyboard), let me try and recap it quickly.

Publishing on the Web costs money. These days that money mostly flows from advertisers to publishers, rather than the individual readers like you or I. In exchange for “free” access to Web content, advertisers show ads on pages as you read, in the hope that you’ll see them and buy the stuff later, or maybe even click immediately and buy the stuff in the advert right now.

The upsides for you the consumer are zero, bar the free content of course. The adverts are often obnoxious, because they need to get your attention. Sometimes they’re animated. Sometimes they make sounds. Both are incredibly distracting. When you read a book or a magazine and turn the page, no sounds come out and pictures don’t dance across the page before you can see the words. Yes there are adverts in magazines, but you can just keep going past them to the content. Often on the Web you can’t easily dismiss them.

They also track you as you navigate around the Web. A request to an advertising server to get the advert can be easily fingerprinted these days and can often persist data in your browser across page loads, letting the advertiser follow you around and know what you’re interested in. Click something on Amazon but don’t buy it and often you’ll see adverts for that thing on other websites. More ridiculously, if you do buy it you’ll still get adverts for it anyway most likely.

Worst of all, ads, because of the insecurity of the browser (despite the best efforts of some of the smartest people in the world who make them), can often be a mechanism to deliver malware and other nasties onto your computer.

So in exchange for being able to read or interact with something on the Internet without paying for it, you get potentially malicious, wasteful, distracting, obnoxious and almost always privacy invading things delivered to the browser in exchange.

The rise of the ad blocker — Apple calls it a content blocker — was therefore as sure as eggs is eggs. In kind, publishers (really the ad networks) have tried to figure out ways around the blocks, but it’s a losing battle. And honestly, ad blocking is essential for a great many websites just to even read them properly without the ads taking over the experience, especially on mobile devices with small screens and more limited resources.

So what’s the solution?

Flattr was most of the way there, but network effects and the constant human interaction required were the obvious barriers to momentum, at least to me. Flattr was a system where you put money in, whatever you could afford, and on your way around the Web, if you consumed content you liked and there was a Flattr button on the page, you pressed it. Then at the end of the month, Flattr counted up your button clicks and divided it by the money you put in, and sent that amount, minus their cut, to the content publisher.

What it got right was the as much as you can afford part, and the division of that among what you really liked. That kept costs affordable, and diverted your money to the stuff you really enjoyed the most (modulo the Flattr button not being available on all websites).

What it got wrong was you having to signal that enjoyment on every website (and really on every page) you visited that had the button. The button wasn’t in the same place every time, because the content provider had to write and deliver code for it to show up in your browser, and so you had to look for it or completely miss it.

To make the model work, the payment system really has to be part of the browser. You give the browser your payment details and a monthly amount. At the end of the month, you get a statement in the browser that shows you what you visited, you review it to make sure it’s legit, editing the list to make sure it fits what you enjoyed, and the browser pays the websites left on the list.

There are a number of ways the per-site amount could be customised: time spent, number of discrete pages visited, etc. And sites could maybe only get on the list at all if there was human interaction required for it to load. Say only if you clicked a link and made the resulting tab be at the front and you scrolled through it yourself by human means.

The key insight is that the browser doesn’t have to communicate with a third party to pay the content providers. That means it doesn’t have to violate your privacy, and it doesn’t have reveal your list of websites to anyone (bar the websites you pay, but then you already visited them).

Another thing is the browser doesn’t even have to give the website fiat currency. It could just send a digital token redeemable for fiat currency instead. It could even do that in a way that any two payments from you to the content publisher aren’t even traceable to you in any way.

It’s maybe obvious by now that I’m talking about using blockchain technologies for this to happen. Your browser embeds a client for something like Bitcoin or Ethereum (with the latter offering up other potential benefits for the system to work in both the consumer and publisher’s favour). Your payment details are used to buy the tokens on an exchange at market rate every month, and then monthly the tokens are split up as you see fit, sent to the website using the blockchain client.

The technical challenges aren’t too difficult, either. I’ll write about those in another blog post. But for now, I think it’s the best way to pay for content on the Web, and solves most of Flattr’s problems in that it becomes low friction (12 interruptions to your day per year, to divvy out your money) and “collection” is transparent as you browse.

On top of that, payments are anonymous and your privacy is as intact as it can possibly be. Best of all, adverts disappear from participating sites. Done properly, network effects will incentivise content publishers to take part. Maybe not the bigger sites whose entire business model revolves around them, because the risks are much higher, but hopefully over time that could (and should, really) change.