Thank you to our sponsors!
Brendan Eich: https://twitter.com/BrendanEich
Basic Attention Token: https://basicattentiontoken.org/
BAT Growth: https://batgrowth.com
Publishers on BAT: https://batgrowth.com/publishers/website
Brendan Eich admits Brave is semi-decentralized: https://thenextweb.com/hardfork/2018/11/23/brave-blockchain-cryptocurrency-browser/
How Brave hurts publishers: https://practicaltypography.com/the-cowardice-of-brave.html
Publishers send cease and desist to Brave: https://www.coindesk.com/bitcoin-browser-brave-responds-cease-desist
Whether BAT is necessary for Brave: https://micky.com.au/just-3-9-of-brave-browser-users-have-bat-in-their-wallets/
Vitalik blog post on token sales: https://vitalik.ca/general/2017/06/09/sales.html
BAT roadmap: https://basicattentiontoken.org/bat-roadmap-1-0/
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Today’s guest is Brendan Eich, CEO and president of Brave. Welcome, Brendan.
Thanks for having me.
It got Microsoft’s attention in such a bad way that they crushed Netscape, and Microsoft ended up in an antitrust case. They lost, and Netscape ejected Mozilla as sort of an escape pod, with just a couple of us on board, a small handful of people, and we persevered, and did Firefox, restarted the browser market. And over the course of time, I realized that the monopoly position had changed who was playing the monopolist, but it was still a risk in the internet.
Whenever you have networks, you can have people cluster around a service or a distribution channel like the PC’s operating system. It becomes a monopoly control point, and you end up with Microsoft in the ‘90s, or now I would say Google, first among many, Facebook also has a lot of power, taking over large parts of markets, and then using that power to conquer adjacent markets. So, while I was doing Mozilla, I also realized, Mozilla was really dependent on Google for its revenue, and I thought, couldn’t we do something that put the user in the first position for controlling the revenue, getting the revenue, sending it to their favorite sites, and that’s why I created Brave.
And also, I just want to cycle back a little bit, there was a period where you did become CEO of Mozilla. It was pretty short, controversy caused you to step down. What happened there?
I can’t talk about that for a lot of reasons, but when I was at Mozilla, I was ultimately running engineering, over 430 people, I think, and stepped up to the opportunity when they couldn’t find a CEO candidate otherwise. But there were difficulties, again, I can’t comment on, and it was important to be able to do the things that we’re doing at Brave without the constraints that I think Mozilla faced at the time. So, I did that.
Okay. Well, just for the listeners, so they’re not confused, I guess shortly after you began, people became aware, partly through a campaign by OkCupid, that you had donated to Proposition 8, which was to ban gay marriage in California, and that caused enough of a controversy that eventually you had to step down. So, tell me a little bit more about how you came to found Brave, and what your motivation was.
As I said, it was watching Mozilla be a junior search partner with Google, which was the main source of revenue for Mozilla, and still is, and realizing Google was not just going to stay an excellent search engine, which is how the partnership started in 2004, after we did the deal in 2004 and started making a lot of money, Google bought YouTube. They bought DoubleClick, which is, you know, the basis for the ad exchange, and how they do ads in publisher pages, and then they bought other companies, and they unified the ad exchange across all of their media, across search, across the publisher pages, across the Google Play Store for Android, and across YouTube.
And then they, you know, they made it so all your data belonged to them, even to the point, people didn’t realize this at first, ProPublica reported on it in 2016, that Chrome is tracking you. If you use any Google service, and you log in with your Google account ID, unless you turn off the tracking, you’re giving data every time you use Chrome with such a logged-in service. You don’t have to log into the browser now. Since last year, they changed it so that just using the service logs you into the browser across all your tabs.
So, this is what, you know, Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism. I don’t know, the term’s not original to her. This is something that I think a lot of people don’t want to see unchallenged, because, you know, you perceive it many ways. You’re tracked by ads that bother you. Maybe they’re targeting ads that you’ve already responded to by buying the product, in which case there’s no point, that’s just annoying, or they’re targeting you with ads for things you don’t want, or they’re disclosing your children’s birthday gifts ahead of schedule, or they’re being used for outright malign purposes, like malware distribution, malevolent stuff, spying on you, harassing you.
Maybe they’re also being used, this is the other side of the system, where you’re not involved, but the advertiser is spending money that’s going to a fraud system that pretends to view the ad when it’s really just a software robot in a Cloud browser. So, there are a lot of problems with this system. When Google bought DoubleClick, the judge supervising the acquisition for a consent decree said, you have a search business, you’ve just bought a display-ads business. You should not arbitrage those two markets.
You’re going to have instant price knowledge for a bunch of brands that are buying keywords for search, and they’re buying, you know, segments, what they call segment identifiers, or basically keywords for display ads. And since you have instant price knowledge, you can make risk-free profit, you shouldn’t do that, but the consent decree expired after two years, and Google unified the ad exchange. It isn’t just arbitrage. It’s now a panopticon, and this is something that I think is a problem for everybody.
Publishers face not only the fraud problem I mentioned, where they don’t get the residual ad revenue share, because there’s no viewer looking at their site. It’s a robot looking at a copy of their site, but the advertiser still pays. Advertisers don’t like that as much, but they kind of have to turn a blind eye, because they’re throwing money at the wall and seeing what sticks. Publishers also are at the end of the payment pipe, so they get whatever’s left in the pie tin, and sometimes it’s only one small slice. It’s, like, 20 percent or 30 percent of the gross revenue spend, and there are other problems, but the social problems become even worse.
People, you know, worry about things like Cambridge Analytica, and I think there’s something to it. The amount of data leakage when you use these kind of ad systems is horrifying. You don’t know, when you go to a page without protection, like Brave Shields offers, where your data’s going. It could be going to a bunch of partners of partners, sort of seven degrees of Kevin Bacon separated from the Google or the other ad exchange operator, and again, it can be used for very bad purposes.
So, how does Brave work?
So, Brave blocks all that stuff. That’s important. We don’t want the default to be tracked and in danger, under a threat. So, tracking by default is complex, because there’s no formal grammar in the web standards that says, here is the web standard for viewing a web page without being tracked, and here is the technology for being tracked, and you can just block that cleanly. It’s much more subtle. It involves all sorts of variations on themes. It cannot, in fact, be formalized in such a clean way, because there are always ways across a network to track somebody if you’re determined enough to do so, but what we have today is such a permissive system that there’s tons of ways to track, and fortunately for Brave, there are lots of ways to defend.
Other, I would say, browsers are starting to do this. For a long time, the only real protection came from browser extensions. So, Firefox pioneered the extension model for browsers, and then other browsers did their own versions of it, and Chrome’s became predominant because of Chrome’s market power. And so, people can use extensions like uBlock Origin, which we think very highly of, or adblocking extensions, some of which don’t block tracking well at all. There are some, like Ghostery and Disconnect, that are more about tracking protection as well.
The diligence and degree of protection vary among these extensions, and you have to know about extensions. You know, does the average user even know what an extension is, or how to get one? With Brave, we built it right into the browser. We do something beyond that. When you do block tracking, when you block this sort of subtle mix of content that can track you, that’s woven into the content you do want to read, you can break the content you want to read. You can break the experience, you can break the page.
So, we need our users to be literally brave. We want them to have, you know, some fortitude in the face of adversity, because they’re going to get some breakage. They’re going to even get some hostile, you know, dialogues from anti-tracking systems that publishers sometimes run. Those systems generally don’t help publishers. They lose readers, but they’re out there. So, by blocking all this by default, we can protect the user. Then, we study the emerging threats using machine learning and web-crawlers.
We build sophisticated models of how tracking works. These are rolled up under a name we call PageGraph, and that allows us to automate the ongoing shields that we ship to users as a set of rules to block things. So, we have a very adaptive system. We can respond to threats within a day or so through a data service that our browser gets these rules through. These rules are not tracking you to us. We don’t track our users in any identifiable way, but we can update Brave quickly to respond to new tracking threats, and we can quickly resolve any sort of breakage that they might see.
So, we’re trying to push the web toward a private-by-default state, and that requires this kind of advanced research and development, because we can then inform the web standards, so we do have a proper grammar for what is licit or legal tracking versus not, and then users can more easily and assuredly block the tracking.
You also created the Basic Attention Token. Why did you need a token?
So, we started from a position in 2015 of Brave wanting to, excuse me, block ads, block tracking, really, which might block ads, but essentially, we were focused on blocking tracking. When you do that, you cut off all the sort of bespoke, contract-based, even if it’s software-as-a-service contract-based, payments that go from the advertiser to the publisher through a bunch of tracking intermediaries, so-called third parties. We realized, therefore, we were going to hurt some publishers, and our users, our early adopters, also realized that, because they’re ecologically-minded.
They don’t just want to track, they don’t just want a free ride, they would like to give back, if possible, to their favorite web sites, and YouTube channels, and so on. And once you block all those tracking pixels and tracking scripts, the payments will not be confirmed, and the publisher or creator will not get paid. So, to reconnect payments, you need something like a browser payment channel directly to the creator, and cryptocurrency was on our mind from the beginning.
So, I talked to the Ethereum London folks in July of 2015 about doing something I called Brave Coin at the time, to make it possible for not only users to give back to their favorite creators, but to give users some coins to get them started, and maybe even as an ongoing grant, almost like a citizenship income, because I didn’t think users should, after having been abused for decades by tracking, have to open their wallet and somehow acquire cryptocurrency. And that was difficult to do then, it’s not really a whole lot easier now, but the Ethereum network had just launched in the end of 2014, and was not ready, and so, we turned to Bitcoin.
And as we brought up Brave in 2016, we rapidly integrated Bitcoin so that you could, by buying Bitcoin, send a little bit to a multi-sig wallet that no entity had two-of-three-keys control over, and that wallet would irrevocably commit whatever you sent to it to be distributed among your sites, and we tried signing up web sites to receive the Bitcoin that was being sent. We used a protocol called ANONIZE, it’s a zero-knowledge proof protocol. We had a centralized but blinded accounting server, so there was no link back to user identity from any of the donations that went through this mechanism, but we could settle to publishers who sign up to get their Bitcoin.
And it was a beta, so we had to comply with regulations, but we didn’t have any partners helping us settle, so we had to, you know, collect W-9s, or the equivalent tax forms from recipients, and they had to be willing to set up a Bitcoin address, and we’d send to them. This was difficult. There were many problems. The first, I will say, no offense to Bitcoin, would’ve been true of any crypto, a lot of publishers don’t want any cryptocurrency. The big ones, especially, the legal, finance department and IT department don’t want to touch it.
So, they need something more like what they’re used to with getting paid by ad vendors, or Google, and that looks more like a ACH, you know, bank connection, or some kind of a way of being invoiced, or getting paid on an invoice basis. They wouldn’t touch crypto, and so, we topped out around the thousand publishers signed up, and it was very hard to grow further, but that was only on the settlement side, the publisher side. The users of the system had to buy their own Bitcoin and bring it. In the US, we had a Coinbase by which that we integrated, which was itself a little challenging, because it had to worry about fraud, credit card fraud.
So, it had a sort of acquisition funnel that would study the user and take extra information, not quite, you know, know-your-customer-level information, but still enough to do anti-fraud work against credit card fraud, which is a real risk. These buy widgets, you’re probably familiar with this, if you want to buy 20 dollars in Bitcoin with a credit card, the risk is, credit card IDs are under a dollar in bulk on the dark web, stolen credit card IDs. So, somebody can just buy a bunch of stolen IDs, make a bunch of 20-dollar Bitcoin buys.
They net 19 dollars’ profit or more, because it only cost them a buck or less for the credit card ID that was stolen, and there’s no way to prosecute the charge back. So, you know, whoever’s involved, the bank of the stolen credit card, is going to just have to eat that, and they’re going to try to shut it down, but it’s hard to police. So, Coinbase and others who have buy widgets have to do some machine-learning-based antifraud, and that makes the user experience less ideal. But even then, you’re asking the user to buy Bitcoin, and we wanted users to get paid.
We didn’t want them to buy. Asking the user to buy something is going to lose a lot of users right away. A lot of people just say, why should I pay? The web’s already free. I can use Chrome or Firefox with uBlock Origin, which is that great blocking extension I mentioned. By the way, Chrome is still planning to somehow break the capabilities of uBlock Origin and other rigorous blockers in order to, they say, improve the security of their extension API. So, there’s a real risk that some of these blocking extensions will be neutered over time, but then you have the problem I mentioned earlier, that users have to know what an extension is and how to get it, sometimes how to configure it.
And in the end, our ecologically-minded users had no way to give back. So, when we set up this Bitcoin system, they could give back, but they had to learn about Bitcoin. They had to buy it, and then, of course, 2017, we had real congestion problems on Bitcoin due to the block size dispute and other problems that were not solved until Segwit was turned on after a fork late in the year, and that meant the network was very slow, and the fees that Coinbase was charging for a small Bitcoin buy were inordinate.
So, we had users who were not crypto-savvy, and because they saw this Coinbase buy widget, if they were willing to navigate its, you know, sort of antifraud, multi-step process to get their credit card in, they would buy 5 dollars of Bitcoin, and they would see a 4 dollar and 50-cent fee, because the network was so congested. So, some of them said, okay, I’ll just buy in bulk, and I’ll amortize the fee better. I’ll buy, you know, more Bitcoin at once, and I’ll trickle it into my Brave Wallet over time, but again, you lose, every time you add friction like that, you lose users.
Every time you say, you know what, get a Bitcoin wallet that optimizes fees, you’ll be great, a lot of users don’t know what to do. They just don’t have the expertise, and they won’t acquire it, and the idea wasn’t to force everyone using Brave to become a Bitcoin expert. It was to help the lead users of Brave who are switching away from Chrome, who want to get protection through Brave Shields, who want to give back to their favorite sites some way to do so without a lot of pain and friction and overhead and fees.
So, then, basically, you introduced Basic Attention Token, but just so I understand, like, you were saying earlier that publishers don’t want to accept a cryptocurrency, so why would they want to accept that, and like, why wouldn’t you just use a stablecoin? Do you know what I mean, just keep it clean, like, if they’re wanting dollars, then it can be all denominated in dollars?
We’re global, that’s one reason. The dollar is the king of the fiats, but there are places in the world…
I mean, well, and…or whatever the local stablecoin…
…is of their choice?
…well, there weren’t a lot of stablecoins then, but to answer your question more directly, yes, publishers mostly, especially the big ones, don’t want to take any crypto, but Basic Attention Token does not require them to take any crypto. We have a partner, Uphold, which we used from the start, to do settlement, and they can exchange to Bitcoin, and then to any fiat, and they do. So, when we partnered with Uphold in 2017, right after the Basic Attention Token sale, we had a way to do settlement in any currency the publisher chose, and initially, that was predominantly the local fiat.
But as we grew, especially as we moved the system to support YouTube channels, where you can actually tip and reward, give a recurring anonymous contribution to your favorite YouTube creator, a lot of them said, we’re going to keep BAT, and they didn’t exchange out. So, the choice of what to take in settlement was another variable. Like I said, that’s a point of friction, because you can’t impose crypto, whether it’s BAT or Bitcoin. On the other hand, you need an exchange partner to have the freedom to let people choose whatever they want, and then let the market sort it out.
And so, why don’t you describe how BAT works for the listeners?
So, that market, as our white paper argues, can have price stability over time, and we also have the option which Brave Coin, the initial idea wanted, of giving users tokens to get them started, grants to bootstrap the system, and that was part of the Basic Attention Token plan that came from the genesis block of the capped token sale, and so, we did an ERC20 token on Ethereum. We had been inspired by the Golem Project in, which sold in November of 2016, which was very successful for its time, and even more so in view of Crypto Summer and the run-up in Ethereum price, Ether price.
We also looked at other early token experiments, like First Blood, and we saw the emergence of ERC20 as a sign to get off Bitcoin. We have no, you know, religious commitment, a priori commitment to any coin. We’re huge fans of Satoshi’s work, and we’re convinced that crypto’s here to stay, but we use it as a means to an end, and that’s tokenizing the attention economy, rewarding users rather than making them pay, reducing friction for all crypto, normalizing crypto for not only attention economics as mediated by a browser or an ad-bearing app like a game, but also for e-commerce, and other things.
One of the things we noticed with Bitcoin, that I heard about from an OpenBazaar founder who talked to me the other month, was it is a stored value, it is subject to these speculative and fairly volatile changes in price, and therefore, people don’t want to spend it, generally. The OpenBazaar founder said, well, they want to hodle it, and I understand that. That also worked against our using Bitcoin, and so, when we used the Basic Attention Token, it wasn’t quite a stablecoin, but if you look at Willy Wu’s charts, Woonomic, from 2017, BAT was actually second-least volatile above US dollar tether among a basket of tokens and coins he looked at, and Bitcoin was more volatile.
Ethereum was more volatile. So, we actually, as our white paper argued, did, by tokenizing and using a custom token, we did achieve lower volatility. Because we’re not locking up the coin for a long time, we’re using it to settle in 30 days, we don’t see volatility as a big concern, and we don’t think our users are burdened by it, because they’re getting a revenue share from ads now, private ads in the browser, which we can offer them as part of Brave Rewards. This is optional.
They’re getting 70 percent of the revenue in tokens, and they can take it out right away, and we do the conversion at the end of the 30-day period. So, we think the volatility exposure is small, but like I said, we’re crypto-agnostic. So, we will use multiple tokens and coins. We will use stablecoins in Brave for many purposes, such as e-commerce, and we’re integrating these now. You’re already seeing this in Brave for desktop, with an Ethereum Wallet that can support ETH and ERC20. That’s already in.
We’re adding other mainchain coins and tokens this year, first half of this year, not by adding, you know, full nodes or custom-like clients to the browser, but using something like Alchemy or BitGo.
Okay, and so, just to summarize for people, you know, because we need to kind of move on to different topics, but basically, the way it works is that, so, you block the ads that publishers serve up, and then you insert your own private ads, and users can earn money from watching those ads. They get 70 percent of the revenue, and if they feel like, they can give some to the publishers, and that’s how, then, the publishers earn BAT. Is that the full cycle?
Not quite. There’s some careful wording required here. We do not insert ads into web pages without publishers agreeing to it, and we haven’t done that yet. We’re working with some publishers to do so. Our ads are user-private. They go in separate spaces in the browser that belong to you, the browser user. They are not going into the publisher page. You know, that would be wrong, we think, ethically. It would also be legally a gray area, and we want the publisher to get paid 70 percent, if they are hosting the space for the ad.
But we definitely want the user to have their own space available, so we have a notification-based ad unit. If you click on the notification, because you like the call to action, it’s like a little search ad, like you see on Google search, but independent of any page, you get a separate tab with a full, beautiful tab’s worth of ad content, and that is private. There’s no signaling, there’s no tracking by anybody, even us. It’s done through local machine learning in the browser that matches against an affixed catalog, and again, the Basic Attention Token lets us do the settlement and lets us do the granting to the user.
It lets us have a unit of account for attention, but the mechanics involving the browser are equally important. People think blockchain alone can solve things like proof of humanity, or antifraud, or attention measurement. Blockchain can do no such thing. You have to have endpoint software like a browser. You have to harden it against fraud. You have to use secure hardware, sometimes, and we’re doing all of that. So, our entire system is blockchain plus browser, and that’s what the BAT’s all about, to answer your question.
In a moment, we’re going to discuss Brave’s ad platform, but first a quick word from the sponsors who make this show possible.
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Back to my conversation with Brendan Eich of Brave. So, you now have ten million monthly active users. How many publishers do you have, and who are some of the big ones?
So, I’m going to encourage you to see a new site called BAT.growth, it’s a new domain, BAT.growth, that shows we have over 400,000 publishers signed up, and you can see the top ones there, including Wikipedia, and the Guardian, Washington Post, Vice, Quartz, there are many others, but also a large number of YouTube channels. Some of the top ones, especially, about music, deejaying techno music, and that site, BAT.growth is only the latest iteration from a volunteer, based on our data and analytics endpoint service that we run.
There’s an earlier one called BATgrowth.com. So, I encourage you to look at those, because these are independent sites that are showing nice charts of our growth curves for signing up creators, YouTubers more than web sites, but all of them. We also have Twitter users signing up in large numbers. Redditors, you can tip a Reddit post if you like it, or a comment. You can tip a Tweet. We take advantage of the browser, I mentioned our system is browser-plus-blockchain, so we actually put a tip button on every tweet in Brave, and we do it safely, without stepping on anything that’s in the Twitter-rendered content, without letting any security holes or cross-site scripting holes emerge from how we do it.
So, that kind of tipping, as an entry point to the Brave Rewards system, to using BAT, has been very productive, because you see a great piece of content you want to tip, that helps you get on board. Then you can start setting up recurring payments, like Patreon, in the browser, and you can let some of your monthly budget of tokens flow out automatically to sites you visit that are signed up. So, with over 400,000 sites, some of our users are actually finding their budget is well-spent, because most of the sites and channels they look at are signed up with us.
And is Dow Jones still a partner, because I…
…didn’t see that on a current…they are. Okay.
They are. They are. We’re doing something…
…you’ll see Barron’s and MarketWatch, we’re particularly focused on them. We’re going to grow out from there, and on the growth side, we have over 11.2 million monthly active users. We have over 3.5 million daily active users, and we’re driving daily up, because we want users to switch from Chrome full-time. What you’ll find, and Mozilla has numbers like this, too, is when you have a browser in the modern world, especially on a laptop or desktop, people will use it in a mix with other browsers, and they don’t use it every day.
So, sometimes you get really loyal users. Sometimes you get users who dip in only for certain sites, when they’re thinking Brave is going to protect them more, but as we grow and we use the token as a reward, and we show greater, you know, utility, and we get our message out, we’re converting people to use Brave all the time, and it really is a good upgrade from Chrome now. Since about a year ago, we’ve had the ability to support all the Chrome extensions that you could want, not just a few we had in a previous version of our desktop product.
We’re going to bring extensions to Android. So, we’re using the same Chromium-based core code on Android very soon as we do on desktop, and that’s going to be interesting, because Google has not allowed browser extensions onto Chrome for Android, and that means there’s no ad-blocking extensions. There’s no uBlock Origin on Android for Chrome.
I was curious, also, Brave doesn’t block ads from Google or Facebook, which, you know, are not content-creators. They just serve up content that other people create, but then, the people and companies who actually are content-creators do have their ads blocked, you know, like the New York Times site or something. So, why is that?
We have no problem with the ad itself, but unfortunately, Hearst uses Google’s ad server to place it, use Google’s tags, script tags, to place it, and we block those. Now, we could, and we’re still working on this with publishers, just through a few safe mock-ups of script APIs, similar to how we do the tipping button on Twitter, we could restore that lost functionality, to make that ad appear, but that ad then is a custom video carousel, and it has another tracking partner that’s part of the surveillance capitalism system, and we block them, too.
So, we’d have to rework that to use our own anonymous confirmation cryptographic protocol, and that could be done, but again, it starts to get, you know, costly to both us and the publisher. So, the collateral damage is real, and this is not something we like, but we’re not going to compromise on protecting users here. We serve users first, even if it means there’s some collateral damage to publishers, and this is well-supported in case law. Adblocking has been taken to court, especially in Germany, but elsewhere, and the user’s right to block has been upheld every time. Axel Springer in particular has just thrown money at this in German courts, and lost time after time.
But I’m curious, I mean, you know, as we talked about earlier, you have your own ad platform. You strip out the ads that are already on a web page. You replace them, or you don’t replace them, but…
We don’t replace them, no.
…you have another way…huh?
We don’t replace anything in the page. We give users the opportunity to get user ads.
Right, but you have another way of, you know, showing ads. Doesn’t that just make you another middleman?
The browser’s always in the middle. This is the insight that I had by living through Mozilla and realizing Firefox had become Google’s middleman, and why should the browser work for the surveillance superpower, instead of for its user? If you want the browser to work for you, including paying you so you can give back to your creators, then you want Brave, and nobody’s built a system like this. It could’ve been done, but that’s not how Google evolved.
They were a search engine, so they centralized data collection, which is what you do when you build search indexes, and then they bought an ad business and grafted it on. They could’ve done everything we’ve done in Brave. The technology is, you know, not unknown. The research was there on things like zero-knowledge proofs and other means for doing anonymity, but they didn’t. We did, and we’re pioneering a movement now you see among other browsers. Apple’s always blocked third-party cookies, but not necessarily other trackers, but now with Apple Intelligent Tracking Prevention, they are blocking tracking systematically.
Mozilla has turned on tracking-prevention, finally. It was a real struggle to get that on, even when I was there. We stepped away from blocking tracking three times, and so, I’m not pointing fingers at anybody. I think we were worried about rocking big boats, including the search partner, Google. We were worried about changing the ecosystem in a way that wouldn’t make it any better. Well, Brave has a better way, and we’re willing to standardize everything we do.
So, as we work, especially in the WWWC, the Worldwide Web Consortium Standards Body, we’re working with Apple, Mozilla, Samsung, I would say Microsoft a bit, they’re trying with their new Chrome-based browser, Chromium-based browser to do some kind of tracking prevention, you’re seeing a new normal of privacy by default, privacy by design that’s turned on to some extent. And we turn it up to 11, so, that’s why we’re doing what we’re doing, but you have to realize, the browser is not out of the middle position. It’s very much in the middle position, and either it serves the user, or it serves Google. There’s no other way.
Well, so, I understand what you’re saying there, but then at the same time, I think if people want to participate in the Brave Rewards, they have to get an Uphold Wallet, and there…
…there they have to participate…
…in full KYC, right?
No. No, they do not.
No, that’s incorrect. In order to join Brave Rewards, you do not need to sign up with Uphold, you do not need the KYC. That’s very important, because we wanted the system to allow the user, with the browser serving the user, to direct their revenue share that they get from these anonymous ads back to their favorite YouTube channels and web sites, and that does not require KYC. That’s the default mode when you sign up for Brave Rewards. You are not told to go sign up with Uphold. You’re not required to do so.
The only time you would have to sign up with Uphold is if you want to take out the revenue share for your own purposes, to buy, you know, lunch. It’s 5 dollars a month. It’s not a huge amount. A lot of our ecologically-minded users want to give it back. They don’t view it as important income to them. They could take it out, but they don’t, and so, the default is for it to flow back to the creators, and that’s super-important, and I think that there’s been misinformation about this.
There’s been some sort of association of KYC with the Basic Attention Token, but that’s also false, because any three-sided market like the ad market, which has advertisers, publishers, and users, is going to require revenue shares, and even if you tried to do this on-chain with a smart contract, the latest guidance from May, from last year, from FinCEN, the Department of the Treasury agency, says you need a license as a money-services business or a money-transmitter. So, that is why we use Uphold. We are not trying to defy any regulators here.
We want to be compliant, and unfortunately, even with a smart contract, with decentralized revenue shares through a smart contract, FinCEN, and I think the SEC agrees in the EtherDelta case, says if you are doing something that looks like a custodial smart contract, the entity that deployed that contract has to have a license. So, we use Uphold, and we use anonymity tech, and as we migrate on-chain, we’ll have to figure out who’s going to deploy the contract, who has the license? But this idea that BAT requires KYC is false.
It’s a canard, and in fact, any crypto asset that we use, whether it’s a stablecoin or Bitcoin, through this revenue share split that advertising inevitably imposes, will require a compliant solution like we use with Uphold, if the user is to get paid. But again, our model is not that the user must take the tokens out for their own, you know, extra change in their pocket. It’s to give back to the creators, and that’s what the ecologically-minded users early on wanted.
They told us, before we even did the Bitcoin prototype, they said, I never click on an ad, but I know that there’s a cost-per-impression, so-called, ad model, where an ad impression, a view, like in Facebook’s model, two seconds of a quarter of a video player reaching your eyeballs makes a brand impression on you, and somehow, there’s some money flowing, you know, fractions of a penny. So, I want to make up for the damage I do. I love Brave, but I know I’m blocking some cost-per-impression ads, can I give back?
And that’s what the default for Brave Rewards is. If you join, the ads are enabled, they’re private and anonymous, and the tokens go under your direction back to your creators, and you can tip, you can set up fixed, recurring, manual contributions, and you can let the rest sort of sweep out through automatic contributions based on in-browser analytics of what sites you’ve been to.
So, basically, they’ll earn Basic Attention Token from watching ads, and then as long as they don’t try to cash out the money for themselves, they don’t have to go through KYC? It’s only if they want to cash out.
Or if they want to add their own funds, that’s the other direction that the governments regulate. So, taking money out or adding your own funds in puts you under anti-money laundering regulation, and that’s why we use Uphold. But if you’re just participating without adding funds or taking out funds, then you’re okay, and there’s no KYC at all.
All right. When you did your ICO, you sold 36 million dollars’ worth of BAT in 24 seconds, and I’m quoting your PR person here. She said it was to around 210 buyers, which maybe, because she didn’t say specifically 210, means maybe more than 205 but less than 210. So, what would you have done differently with the ICO?
So, we did it in a period when we had excellent advice from Perkins Coie on the legal front, and on accounting from Deloitte, and we’ve complied with all the relevant laws, but the one thing that was out of our hands was Ethereum, and there was no way to do sort of a fair crowd-sale on Ethereum. We figured that because gas, which is the fee built into Ethereum, was designed to arbitrate contention in the network fairly, it would not have exponential growth, it would scale linearly with the load, that we should just use gas to moderate the sale.
We didn’t know how fast the sale would go. There was a lot of uncertainty, and so, we ended up just doing a capped sale, and it sold very fast, quicker than we thought, and other projects looking at that tried to do other things. They tried to say, well, we’ll write a complex smart contract to, you know, make the sale more fair, or we’ll just raise the cap so there’s more opportunity for more buyers to get in before the sale ends. You saw Status, and Bancor, and Tezos all go very big. They all had, I think, troubles by going so big.
We didn’t go big, but we had a sale that ended quickly, and I actually tweeted at Vitalik Buterin about this, and he wrote a nice blog post a month or so later about token sales and how to make them better on Ethereum, but it was, he was very clear. He said, you couldn’t do much better than the BAT sale did right now. Here are some ideas for improvements, but they need more work, and so, I think we played it safe and did the right thing. If we had done something novel to try to make the sale slower or more fair, there’s a huge risk it would’ve failed or had a big security bug.
You may recall, there was the Parity multi-sig wallet attack later, late in July, I think, in 2017. There were a number of serious problems with wallet security, even after the famous DAO attack of 2016. So, we kept our smart contracts very simple. We had them audited by three auditors, and we avoided any risk there, and had a very fast sale, and that was the trade-off.
Is it possible now to use Basic Attention Token without using Brave?
Sure. It was always possible. The minute the sale is over, the token was on Ethereum as an ERC20 token, and could be used, and early on, some…
When you say that, do you mean traded, or, like, could it have been earned, or…?
Well, not earned, but traded and used to donate back. So, somebody in Germany, I think he was a student, or a young person, built an extension for Firefox and Chrome that used Basic Attention Token, used our anonymous accounting server to let people buy tokens and send them back. It was called BATify. It may be out there, still. It only had a couple of dozen users, because again, without the extra work we do with advertising and antifraud, we couldn’t give out tokens to the BATify users, but this person wanted to create an extension for those who would have their own BAT or buy their own BAT to give back.
And so, that BATify extension was a second app in our ecosystem, very early on. Again, I don’t think it was going to do well, because making people buy crypto is a high cost, it’s a high-friction surface, and it’s not our model. We wanted to give users tokens, give them the option on tokens, let’s say, that they can then let flow back to their creators, or if they want, they can sign up and take out, they can add their own funds. If they really don’t like ads, they can turn off the ads that are a part of Brave Rewards, the anonymous Brave ads, but leave on the anonymous contribution, and they can bring their own funds through Uphold and let them trickle back to their creators, do tipping, do manual contributions.
So, we have a lot of flexibility for users, but the default has to be something that doesn’t require the user to buy crypto, because that is just a negative for most people.
So, but did you say that there is not a way to earn BAT without interacting with Brave?
Right now, because of the ad deals we’re doing and the antifraud system we’re doing, you have to use Brave, but we have on our roadmap for the third phase of BAT development building an SDK that can be put in other apps. Again, I mentioned earlier, blockchain cannot solve antifraud. It cannot prove there’s a human on the other end of a network. Blockchain cannot, by itself, deal with paying a revenue share to users without regulated, compliant, you know, flow of some sort, whether it’s through a smart contract on-chain or through a centralized service like we run with Uphold.
If you’re doing anything that’s regulated like that, you’re going to need something more than blockchain. And so, what is that something? Well, in part, it’s client software. It’s what I call endpoint software. It’s in the Brave browser right now, but it can be put in a defensive software development kit, a so-called SDK, really a library with some hardware-hardening and defense against tampering, and that can be put into other apps, and that’s on our roadmap.
And we have other apps, browsers, games, podcast apps that want this, because they all are tired of the miserable revenue share they get from ads. A lot of them, the browsers are beholden to Google for search revenue deals. They would love to have their own way of making money in a more direct model, like we have in Brave. So, bringing the model we’re proving in Brave to other apps is on our roadmap, but it is not something that you can do overnight, because it involves, like I said, making a defensive library out of our BAT code, and making it fraud-proof, and then providing it for other apps in a way that they can integrate.
In the last year, we’ve seen the SEC focus on tokens that meet the four prongs in a Howey Test, which is to be an investment contract in a common enterprise with an expectation of profits dependent on a third party. So, you know, if we’re talking about how, at the moment, in order to earn BAT, you have to use Brave, do you think that Basic Attention Token could meet the Howey Test, and if so, does that give you any concern?
No. I’m not going to play lawyer, I pay enough real bills to them, but we have no concerns. We complied at the time we did the sale, and we’ve never had any problems, and we’ve been compliant ever since. So, as the guidance changes, you have to read it and understand it, and I think Kin got in big trouble because they didn’t respond to the DAO bulletin of July, late July 2017. They didn’t seem to take that into account in their later sale, but we have always kept current.
So, we don’t have concerns, but I’m not going to play lawyer on your show, because I think that would be bad for me and for the listeners, and I’d need to be paid a lot more if I were a lawyer. I think, I’ve never been about money, but I’m an engineer by training, and I’ve learned a lot about business over the years, and the one thing I do know is to get the best. So, Perkins Coie has been a great counsel on this.
Yeah, I mean, it’s not only Kick, but then, you probably saw the recent news about Telegram, which is apparently in a battle with SEC. They did issue a notice where they tried in pretty much every way possible to separate that company from the TON Network and the Grams cryptocurrency, even to the point of saying that TON, the TON Wallet will not be integrated with the Telegram messenger service. So, you know, obviously now, you’re in this phase where your network is more centralized.
You know, do you have plans to, like, speed up your efforts to become more decentralized, and what will it look like when you do become more decentralized?
Well, the parts that are very decentralized for us already are the browser pieces. Even though it’s all Brave, it’s open-source, and we have this BATify extension, which does part of what the endpoint does in Brave, and as I say, we’re working on the SDK, but I don’t think we’re going to speed up. I think we’re already, in some ways, we’re grandfathered from the past. The problem for Telegram or new, you know, new sales or recent sales is that they came out after further guidance and clarification and actual frameworks from the regulators.
And if they didn’t take those into account, then there’s no sort of ex-post facto law protection, retroactive law protection. So, that’s their problem, not ours. We are diligently working to decentralize in this third Apollo phase, we’re using the US Space Program as a trope, the BAT Apollo phase of our roadmap, and we’re looking at, you know, future options on Ethereum. We’re looking at other chains, too, but we’re not looking to change chains that we don’t have to, and you know, the difficulty, I think, for newer projects is that they have to do things in a different order in order to operate in the US.
Now, there is something I will comment on here, and that’s the US is, I think, of two minds on crypto. You see this most clearly with Libra, where there’s obviously a cantonic variable, there’s a lot of antipathy toward Facebook, which I understand, based on their data breaches and their privacy policies, and Cambridge Analytica. But when the government is very much against Libra, and there’s spillover effects on other crypto, when, in contrast, in Asia, or in other, in some ways the rest of the world, you can do aggressive crypto projects and get uptake quickly, the innovation is moving out of the US, and this is not an original point.
Like, many people have said this over the last few years, and I think it’s to the detriment of the US that this happens. I think the regulators are mostly doing their job, which is good, but what is their job? That’s defined by the legislature, and the legislature, outside of the state of Wyoming, seems not to be pro-crypto.
So, can you describe a little bit more of what it will look like when it’s decentralized? Is it going to be the kind of thing where people can use other browsers and earn BAT, or, I don’t…?
As I said, if we build an SDK, and the other browsers put it in, then yes. If we combine forces that way, it will be good, because it will bring advertisers at greater scale. They’ll have multiple options for compiling their offers into the catalog that our browser downloads, that is the way we avoid tracking and targeting on ads. So, getting other browsers onboard is generally good for the ecosystem. We want to do that.
That’s for the SDK side, but for what’s on-chain, and for how you settle, our white paper talked about a revenue split on-chain in the smart contract, and we need to shield identity with zero-knowledge proofs, and we would, per FinCEN, we would need to have a regulated entity to deploy that smart contract. So, there’s no simple answer here, but it looks more like a side-chain, maybe a proof-of-authority side-chain, which is what we’re researching in the BAT Apollo project right now. It looks like putting our blind-signature cryptography or zero-knowledge proofs on-chain in a way that can’t be linked to the user, but is authentic, and can be checked, this involves more cryptography than zero-knowledge proofs.
And in fact, we’ve moved toward blind signatures, which you may know of through Privacy Pass. We’ve also, because we want to allow advertisers and publishers to check the chain to believe us, not to trust us, or have an auditor for us, or a verified partner check us, checking the chain means something like partial homomorphic encryption, multi-party computing. We’re looking at a large crypto toolkit, so it’s not just blind signatures or ZKPs. It’s also NPC and PHE, and that means we’re doing advanced cryptography on-chain, on a side-chain probably, for throughput and other reasons.
So, that’s where we’re headed with BAT Apollo, but it’s not set in stone. It’s experimental, and we’re bringing up, you know, basically test, running tests and bringing up what might become a side-chain test-net for this. How it looks to the user is, they just see more apps with the Basic Attention Token integrated through the SDK. What it looks like to the advertiser is they get more reach. They can reach all the Firefox users. They can reach all the Samsung browser uses.
What it looks like to the publisher is, publishers are already seeing adblocking rising over the last 15 or 14 years, since Adblock and Adblock Plus broke out as Firefox extensions, and they can’t do much about it. If it’s 30 percent of their monthly uniques, they’d love to turn it around. That’d be a 43-percent win, but you can’t nag Adblock users to white-list your site or subscribe. That generally drives them away. So, Brave is the best option for diligent, let’s say, tracking protection-users and Adblock users, for publishers who want to recover some revenue, because then they aren’t alienating their users by saying, go away or turn off your adblocker or pay us a subscription.
You’re saying, hey, you’re using Brave, great, maybe you have some tokens you can send us. Here’s a premium product you might like to buy, one-click buy, low friction, no identification. Now, the publisher will sometimes say, but what about my need for subscribers with whom I have a credit card, an email relationship, and we understand that. We don’t want to reduce that conversion, but that conversion is two percent or less on those paywalls. You’re probably seeing a lot of these paywalls now that say, hey, you’ve had your three free articles, time to pay.
They have miserable conversion. We could actually help improve the conversion by instead of driving users away with a hostile dialogue, say, hey, you’ve got some BAT. Why don’t you spend it to buy a few more articles, and then, hey, you’ve bought a few more articles three times, you’ve bought nine articles, and you’ve overpaid compared to a monthly subscription. You’re better off subscribing, how about it? At that point, we think the subscription conversion goes up, and if we have more browsers with BAT SDK, they have more ad-buyers for scale funding the user wallets, then I think the whole system will perform better, and publishers will come around in bulk.
But again, when you go build a system like Brave, you’re going to have to pick your first constituency, and ours is the user. So, publishers have to follow, and I think they are. That’s why we have the working relationships with Dow Jones Media Group and other publishers who signed up, what you see at BAT.growth.
So, based on the number of Etherscan Wallets and the number of Brave Wallets, at least a recent report said that only four percent of Brave browsers’ monthly active users are using BAT, so…
Yeah, that’s an error, because they don’t look at Uphold’s wallet architecture. As I say, we use Uphold not only as a money-services business for regulatory reasons, but they provide a member-to-member off-chain sending capability, and that’s how…
So, what is the percentage, then?
So, we have over 13 percent of our users opted into Brave Rewards, and so, that’s…
And what percentage of those are paying…?
…1.4 million users. Well, the default is that they get ad revenue and it trickles back to their publishers. So, almost all of them. Very few of them turn off ads. We actually don’t, because we’re a privacy browser, we don’t have detailed telemetry on our users. We don’t want to track our users. If we took too many bits of information from our users, we could form a tracking identifier or fingerprint. So, what we know are certain, you know, very few-bit answers to questions that we do measure, and we haven’t studied that closely, but most users just stick with the default.
This is a rule in all apps, certainly in browsers, that if you pick the right defaults, the users stick with them. This is why Google search is the default for Firefox. If you made it Yahoo! Search, which they did, people would override it back to Google. So, our default for Brave Rewards is that it goes back, the ad revenue comes to the user, but they let it trickle back to their sites. So, apart from the few we take, that’s all going back to the creators.
So, then, if I’m a publisher, based on, like, if I were to compare how much I’m losing from the adblocker on Brave versus how much I’m earning from the 13 percent of users who pay publishers, then am I back in the black?
That’s a great question, and it requires a case study with a publisher, which we’re working on. You can’t generalize the numbers easily because there are a lot of black boxes here, not only the publishers’ business, which is their business, it’s not public, generally, how much they’re making off their users, but also, there’s Google in the mix, which we block. So, we don’t know the opportunity cost of blocking, but users have the right to block. So, the user is going to block anyway.
What Brave represents is a positive sum-game, found money, a good day compared to just blocking. Pure blocking is just a negative for the publisher. With Brave, there’s tokens trickling back, and we’re driving that 13 percent up. When we had Brave Rewards in the desktop only, we had 40 percent opt in. As we brought it to mobile, because mobile is more challenging, a smaller view port, you know, one app at a time, we had the opt-in go down, but we’re going to drive it back up. And so, the 13 percent is blended. So, the opt-in on desktop is higher.
I would also add, desktop users are valuable. When people say, you know, mobile killed desktop, it’s not true. Desktop is immortal. It’s a large part of Google’s business, it’s still important even to Facebook, which is definitely a mobile-first company. So, you look at people who are high-value consumers, and even producers, they use a big-screen laptop, they have even a desktop at home, they use Smartphones, and they use them all.
Brave is an opportunity to reach them on all their devices in a private way, and in fact, we can do things that are illegal under the European data-protection laws, like cross-device attribution, where you’re researching a major purchase like a car on your home big-screen. And then you go on the go, and you see a car you like, and you look it up on your Smartphone. Tracking ad tech tries to look at this journey, because it’s a very valuable thing to follow, and if you get the user close to buying, you can tilt them with a discount or a brand they hadn’t heard of to buy differently, but it’s totally surveillance.
With Brave, it can all be done on your device. If you use our private sync system, it’s encrypted with a key only you have, and so, each browser’s machine-learning agent can study the sum of all your data that’s privately encrypted and shared across your devices. That, we’re building out. That’s not there yet, but that’s just an idea, it gives you an idea of how much we can do by using this private approach that Google and the big tracking companies have trouble doing, because of not only laws but things like cookies not working well on mobile. So, we have a solution we think is actually more accurate and complete. It’s more private by design, and it’s user-first.
So, we touched on some of the things that you’re working on for this year. What else does Brave have planned for 2020?
So, the BAT Apollo work is important. Adding crypto assets of different kinds that I mentioned is important. We don’t want to force users to use crypto. As I say, a lot of users don’t really want to jump into the deep end of the crypto pool, but there are users of Brave who do have crypto and want to spend it. Not really Bitcoin, which they’re hodling, but stablecoins or other assets, and that, we want to add. So, we have the ability, with our scale, to bring crypto to a level of use that you don’t see outside of Korea, where if you have millions of Brave users opted in, which I think is a reasonable number over the next six months, they can not only use the Basic Attention Token.
They can, if they have other crypto assets, or if they want to trade BAT through Uphold or other partners we can add, they will be able to use stablecoins. They will be able to use whatever crypto asset they want, and we’ll have the infrastructure for them to do so. This is not just about advertising, this goes to e-commerce. This can help merchants who suffer from the high cost of chargebacks, credit card fraud, which is a concealed cost on the merchant. It’s also, by the way, going to get rid of the interchange charge, which with credit cards is, like, two percent.
So, crypto is important for, we think, e-commerce, and we can make it safe and secure in the browser. One of the things Netscape did that Mosaic pioneered, but Netscape really brought to fruition with secure sockets, HTTPS, and with the ability to do secure connections, is normalizing doing business on the web. And unfortunately, we didn’t have Bitcoin then. We didn’t have blockchain then, but now we do. So, we think payments should be completely frictionless. If you have the crypto-assets, we can even matchmake through an exchange.
You could have a local buying wizard in the browser that’s helping you do the best exchange options, if you have to matchmake between an asset you have and a digital asset the merchant wants. There’s so much to do here that could be automated and could just work beautifully for the user and the merchant, and get all the intermediaries who are taking their, you know, cuts while they tolerate fraud out of the picture. So, what we’re doing at scale with ads also applies to transactional models, e-commerce, and this is good for the merchants.
They aren’t just commodified in Amazon and then replaced by rip-off artists. It’s good for the brands who have a direct relationship with our user ads in the notification tab with their users, their fans. So, we want to build up not just ads, but long-lived brand engagement channels. If I get a brand out I like, I sometimes leave that tab around, and I use it to interact. I may even go so far as to buy through that tab, so it becomes an e-commerce opportunity for the advertiser.
Where can people learn more about you and Brave?
So, Brave.com is the big site, and @Brave on Twitter. BasicAttentionToken.org is the product page, and we still mirror blogs there, and we do some custom work there, especially around research, but I’m active on Twitter, and we’re very approachable. One of the things I learned at Silicon Graphics in my youth was engineers doing customer support is a good idea. That’s what Jim Clark had us do. So, I would sit on the help desk a day a month, and so, we are very responsive across the org. You can reach engineers.
You can reach product people. You can reach everybody at Brave who has a Twitter account, and they’re pretty responsive, and this is huge for early adopters, because with Google Chrome or with Apple Safari, you just get no dial tone. They’re just, they’re not going to talk to you, but there are always bugs. There are always peculiar things that happen with software, so we’re there to help.
Great. Well, thanks for coming on Unchained.
It was my pleasure.
Thanks so much for joining us today. To learn more about Brendan and Brave, check out the show notes inside your podcast player. If you’re not yet subscribed to my other podcast, Unconfirmed, which is shorter, a bit newsier, and now features a short news recap, be sure to check that out. Also, find out what I think are the top crypto stories each week by signing up for my email newsletter at UnchainedPodcast.com.
Unchained is produced by me, Laura Shin, with help from Fractal Recording, Anthony Yoon, Daniel Nuss, Josh Durham, and the team at CLK Transcription. Thanks for listening.