The cowardice of Brave

More than 15 years af­ter cre­at­ing Java­Script, Bren­dan Eich con­ceded that JS had “a lot of stu­pid in it.” Mr. Eich, I re­gret to say that the same is true of your new web browser, called Brave.

The re­gret is sin­cere. I’ll never be a fan of Java­Script. But Bren­dan Eich achieved some­thing au­then­ti­cally great with Mozilla. In 1998, while still a Netscape em­ployee, he helped start the Mozilla project. Start­ing in 2003, he worked at Mozilla for 11 years, ship­ping in­flu­en­tial soft­ware, es­pe­cially the Fire­fox web browser. But more than that, a core part of Mozilla’s iden­tity has al­ways been its ex­cel­lent ethics around open source and web cit­i­zen­ship. That would’ve been a ter­rific legacy for any soft­ware engineer.

Ap­par­ently, how­ever, Mr. Eich has un­der­gone some kind of late-ca­reer con­ver­sion to the dark side of the force. With Brave, Mr. Eich wants to ruin my work—and that of every other cre­ator who’s still prop­ping up what’s left of the ad-free in­ter­net—so that he (and his ven­ture in­vestors) may profit. How? By lay­er­ing ads over my ad-free web­site, while con­vinc­ing web users that they’re part of some vir­tu­ous new economy.

Sorry Mr. Eich, but I refuse to co­op­er­ate. As soon as I fig­ure out how to de­tect the Brave web browser by tech­no­log­i­cal means—a task you’re de­lib­er­ately mak­ing dif­fi­cult, be­cause you know that many pub­lish­ers would like to do the same—I will make sure that every Brave vis­i­tor gets this as their land­ing page.

Be­cause they de­serve to know that Brave is bullshit.

For web users, Brave is a com­pany, founded by Mr. Eich, that makes an epony­mous web browser. Ac­cord­ing to Brave, its browser of­fers two key benefits:

  1. The “speed, se­cu­rity, and pri­vacy” that comes from au­to­mat­i­cally block­ing ads and trackers.

  2. The vir­tu­ous plea­sure of giv­ing “pub­lish­ers back their fair share of In­ter­net revenue.”

Be­fore we go fur­ther, let’s no­tice that Brave’s pitch bla­tantly side­steps the fact that web pub­lish­ers al­ready have a pre­ferred way of get­ting their “fair share” of on­line rev­enue: ads.

Hey, I don’t like those ads ei­ther. Though I’m skep­ti­cal that block­ing them does much good in the aggregate.

It’s def­i­nitely true, how­ever, that block­ing them makes web brows­ing faster. Al­though every web browser sup­ports ad block­ing (usu­ally through ex­ter­nal plug-ins), Brave is the first to de­clare to­tal war on the ad econ­omy of the web.

Well—sort of. Brave the browser, like every other web browser, is free to end users. But be­cause Brave the com­pany, like every other tech com­pany, has bills to pay, and in­vestors to en­rich, it needs a rev­enue model. And that model is—pre­pare to un­hol­ster your com­plete lack of surprise—ads.

But wait—come back! Not just any ads. New and im­proved ads. Ads that are “pri­vate” and “au­then­tic” and “re­ward­ing” and a bunch of other vir­tu­ous no­tions sprayed side-to-side like Febreze in a frat-house bath­room. But once you wave away the spring-fresh scent, the stench of the grubby re­al­ity re­turns: it’s just Brave’s ads for Brave’s advertisers.

Per­haps con­cerned that users might de­tect that Brave is do­ing noth­ing more so­phis­ti­cated than sub­sti­tut­ing one set of ads for an­other, Brave has put mis­di­rec­tion into the trick in the trendy way: with cryp­tocur­rency. Brave has in­vented some­thing called the “Ba­sic At­ten­tion To­ken”, which it uses to pay users for watch­ing ads in the Brave browser. In turn, users can kick back some of this use­less scrip to web cre­ators in a process Brave calls “tip­ping”—maybe in the sense of restau­rants, or maybe in the sense of cows.

To close the cir­cle, web cre­ators who want their “fair share” of this use­less scrip must reg­is­ter with Brave as “con­tent cre­ators” and con­sent to the usual in­va­sive in­dig­ni­ties. Let’s say that one more time, be­cause it’s im­por­tant: if you’re a Brave user, your tips don’t go to cre­ators au­to­mat­i­cally or di­rectly. Rather, they go into an es­crow, which Brave uses a means of re­cruit­ing cre­ators into Brave’s new world.

The best I can say for Brave is that it’s clever. Not the ads per se. But the au­dac­ity of in­tro­duc­ing a pri­vate ad­ver­tis­ing ecosys­tem. And rop­ing users and cre­ators into it with a crypto coin.

But in all other ways, it’s just as aw­ful as the sys­tem it pro­poses to re­place. Worse, really, be­cause Brave takes its bad idea and lay­ers on the usual whipped-bull­shit virtue top­ping that tech com­pa­nies de­ploy so we can’t quite see what’s really go­ing on. More­over, Brave’s tim­ing couldn’t be bet­ter: as Big Tech’s rep­u­ta­tion keeps tak­ing hits, Brave can hold it­self out as the con­trar­ian op­tion to re­pair the web.

As one of the cre­ators who I guess is sup­posed to be grate­ful to Brave, I dis­agree. Once I scrape away the top­ping, it’s ap­par­ent Brave is serv­ing up the same old shit sandwich.

About which, more be­low. But first, let’s rewind.

The most dis­ap­point­ing as­pect of this story is that be­fore Brave, Bren­dan Eich had an im­pres­sive track record. He’s a soft­ware en­gi­neer who’s been in­volved in web browsers as long as there’s been a web. Shortly af­ter he joined web pi­o­neer Netscape in 1995, he claims he had to cre­ate Java­Script “in ten days or some­thing worse … would have happened.”

In 1998, Eich helped spin out Netscape’s source code into the open-source Mozilla project. In 2003, Eich left Netscape for Mozilla, serv­ing the project in var­i­ous ca­pac­i­ties un­til 2014.

To give Mr. Eich his due: in the last 25 years, one could ar­gue that Mozilla has been one of the top five cit­i­zens of the in­ter­net. They’ve al­ways had good ethics. They’ve made a lot of really good soft­ware, most of all the Fire­fox web browser. They’ve led by ex­am­ple and held them­selves ac­count­able. And Mozilla has sur­vived de­spite the com­mer­cial web of­ten be­ing hos­tile to Mozilla’s val­ues. For what­ever part of this Mr. Eich was re­spon­si­ble for, he de­serves credit and gratitude.

I hes­i­tate to men­tion what hap­pened next, be­cause it’s not strictly part of Mr. Eich’s tech­nol­ogy port­fo­lio. And yet. It does seem to play a role in Brave’s ori­gin story, much the same way that Mr. In­cred­i­ble’s (r)ejec­tion of In­cred­i­boy led him to be­come Syndrome.

In March 2014, Mr. Eich was ap­pointed CEO of Mozilla Cor­po­ra­tion. That’s the kind of job you don’t take un­less you plan to stick around for a while. Days later, peo­ple of the in­ter­net dis­cov­ered that Mr. Eich had fi­nan­cially sup­ported Cal­i­for­nia Propo­si­tion 8, a no­to­ri­ous 2008 bal­lot mea­sure that wanted to ban same-sex mar­riage in Cal­i­for­nia. Back­lash fol­lowed. Af­ter of­fer­ing a heart­felt non-apol­ogy, Mr. Eich resigned.

I don’t care that Mr. Eich is a po­lit­i­cal con­ser­v­a­tive. I’m not. But I don’t think he owed any­one an apol­ogy. His views were not a se­cret. Still, I don’t see him as a vic­tim ei­ther. Records of po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions are pub­lic for a reason.

If any­thing, the board of Mozilla should’ve no­ticed the like­li­hood for con­tro­versy be­fore they el­e­vated him to CEO. If they had, maybe they wouldn’t have made the ap­point­ment. Or maybe they would’ve found a way to work around the PR prob­lem. In any case, maybe Mr. Eich would’ve re­mained at Mozilla. The ker­fuf­fle would’ve faded. And Mr. Eich could’ve gone back to be­ing a rich, fa­mous, and in­flu­en­tial web engineer.

In­stead, he left. Shortly there­after, he started work on the com­pany that be­came Brave, which eth­i­cally speak­ing is Mozilla’s ex­act an­tipode. I have no spe­cial in­sight into Mr. Eich’s mo­ti­va­tions. But given the tim­ing of events, it’s hard not to see Brave as a re­sponse to the events sur­round­ing his in­vol­un­tary exit from Mozilla. As a browser maker, Brave’s com­pe­ti­tion is more than just Mozilla Fire­fox. But Brave’s the­ory of the web seems al­most like the Bizarro-world re­frac­tion of Mozilla’s.

If Mr. Eich had wanted to be ac­cu­rate, he would’ve called his new browser “Ads and Cryp­tocur­rency”. Not so in­spir­ing, I guess. The name he chose in­stead—Brave—is cen­tral to his virtue marketing.

The name Brave im­plies that other tech com­pa­nies are shrink­ing from the job of im­prov­ing the bro­ken as­pects of the web. Near the top of that list is what is now a decades-long fail­ure to de­vise a sus­tain­able model to fund cre­ators and publishers.

There is truth to this cri­tique. As I write this, Google’s Chrome browser is by far the most pop­u­lar. But Google gets al­most all its money from ads, and has no in­cen­tive to do any fa­vors for pub­lish­ers. Like­wise Face­book, de­spite oc­ca­sional grunt­ing noises to the contrary.

But the idea that Brave is some­how stick­ing its neck out is laugh­able. Here’s what I find most cow­ardly about Brave:

  1. Zero in­no­va­tion. Brave isn’t of­fer­ing a new idea. It’s just sub­sti­tut­ing one set of ads for an­other. It’s as if you were punch­ing your­self in the face for days, and some­one handed you a rock in­stead. If ads are the orig­i­nal sin of the web, Brave is not lead­ing us to terra nova.

  2. Dis­hon­esty. With its non­sense about pri­vacy and au­then­tic­ity and in­tegrity, Brave is hold­ing out its ad sys­tem as some great eth­i­cal leap for­ward. It’s not.

    For pub­lish­ers, it’s the same old pro­tec­tion racket—nice web­site you’ve got there, shame if some­thing hap­pened to its traf­fic—but run by Brave in­stead of Google or Facebook.

    For users, Brave is still go­ing to col­lect data about you and lever­age it to tar­get you with ads. Oh, sorry—in Brave’s mar­ket­place, “users be­come part­ners in­stead of tar­gets”, so I guess they’ll “part­ner” you with ads. Feel better?

  3. Free­load­ing. One of the sneaki­est as­pects of Brave is the im­plied con­nec­tion be­tween gen­er­at­ing cryp­tocur­rency while brows­ing and pay­ing out that cur­rency later. It sounds like web users are pay­ing for what they read. In some cases, they might.

    But that’s not guar­an­teed. By sub­sti­tut­ing its own ads, Brave is also sev­er­ing the con­nec­tion be­tween where the ads are seen and who gets the money for those ads. Brave con­verts the whole web into a clean sub­strate for de­liv­er­ing its own ads, with­out guar­an­tee­ing any pay­ment to anyone.

    For in­stance, sup­pose a Brave user spends 99% of their time on Ter­ and 1% on As I un­der­stand it, the Brave gilt gen­er­ated dur­ing those ses­sions is not au­to­mat­i­cally dis­trib­uted pro rata, which you might think would be es­sen­tial to cre­ators get­ting the “fair share” that Brave pro­motes. Rather, the user de­cides who gets the money—for in­stance, they could pledge 100% of it to, where they spend al­most no time, and none to Ter­, the site that morally earned it.

    In other words, sign­ing up as a Brave “con­tent cre­ator” is not the end of the strug­gle, but merely the be­gin­ning. In the bad old days, you had to lure peo­ple onto your web­site. But once you did, at least you had a shot at show­ing them a few ads.

    Un­der Brave’s sys­tem, you still have to lure them onto your web­site, but then also make sure you com­pete ef­fec­tively against other Brave con­tent cre­ators to get that “fair share” you keep hear­ing about.

    This, in turn, is go­ing to lead to pre­dictable forms of sys­temwide cheat­ing that have noth­ing to do with con­tent cre­ation. In short, Brave’s cre­ator econ­omy is go­ing to de­scend into an­ar­chic cor­rup­tion in about five sec­onds. The eth­i­cal cre­ators will start to dis­ap­pear from the sys­tem as they find them­selves even more un­der­paid than be­fore. Af­ter that, the usual race to the bot­tom will ensue.

As an eco­nomic mat­ter, Brave will fail, be­cause there’s no way for it to suc­ceed. Web ads are a rot­ten busi­ness—a form of re­gres­sive tax­a­tion upon the web’s least so­phis­ti­cated users that de­pends on es­ca­lat­ing lev­els of sur­veil­lance to sus­tain any value. Brave is pan­ning for gold in a river of sewage.

Be­yond that, the fact that Bren­dan Eich has done a lot of good things for the web via his work at Mozilla just makes the ex­is­tence of Brave all the more in­ex­plic­a­ble and dispiriting.

You know what would’ve been brave, Mr. Eich? Help­ing pub­lish­ers find a way to in­duce more read­ers to pay for the ma­te­r­ial they find valu­able, with­out the un­nec­es­sary in­di­rec­tion of ads and cryp­tocur­rency. Like I do.

—Matthew But­t­er­ick Brav­er­ick™
12 De­cem­ber 2019

by the way

  • “But as a user, par­tic­i­pat­ing in Brave’s ad model is en­tirely vol­un­tary.” For now. As the weak­ness of Brave’s rev­enue model re­veals it­self, we can ex­pect that the Brave browser will make it tougher to avoid the ads. But even to­day, you can’t pay cre­ators through Brave un­less you’re gen­er­at­ing Ba­sic At­ten­tion To­kens by watch­ing ads. Con­versely, if you don’t care about pay­ing cre­ators, then you don’t need to use Brave.

  • “Why do you care if Brave shows peo­ple ads while they visit your ad-free sites?” For the same rea­son I don’t like any of the ef­flu­ent flows: they send me use­less traf­fic that costs me real money. But hey, that’s the web—I ac­cept that cer­tain sites ex­ist to ex­ploit peo­ple with skills and cred­i­bil­ity. Brave, by con­trast, is hold­ing it­self out as an en­light­ened com­pany friendly to web pub­lish­ers, but with­out ac­tu­ally mak­ing any con­crete commitments.