Can the Brave Browser Fix the Internet?

The age of privacy breaches and data harvesting won’t last forever

A Brave new world

YYou don’t need to have watched Netflix’s The Great Hack to know that the simple novelty of “surfing the web” has begun to wear off. If you did watch it, you would have been served a chilling reminder of just how much information about you is floating around in cyberspace, collected and sold by the corporate titans of the modern age: Facebook, Google, Amazon, Alibaba. In the midst of the 2016 general election, Cambridge Analytica boasted that it had 5,000 pieces of data on every single adult in the United States — enough to predict exactly how each would vote.

By now, the Machiavellian exploits of Cambridge Analytica and Russian hackers are well documented — but the 2016 fireworks are a symptom of the problem, not its cause. The unfathomable amount of data that we’ve provided Big Tech, used by malicious actors to manipulate and divide, hasn’t vanished. Why would it? Facebook and Google have built their businesses around the harvesting and monetizing of your information. It’s just a pity that they haven’t proven to be particularly diligent custodians of their collections — 50 million users here, 50 million users there.

At a time when the great Silicon Valley companies have rushed to monopolize this new data economy with the enthusiasm of Victorian gold miners, it’s noteworthy to see a new entrant propose a reimagining of the system itself. This new technology company, aptly named Brave, promotes a browser that is fundamentally built around privacy and data security. The Brave browser blocks ads, cookies, and trackers by default. Brave prioritizes secure connections (think HTTPS instead of HTTP) and promises to block all phishing and malware.

Brave pointedly says “we’re not in the personal data business.”

For the curious, Brave also offers a feature that lets you view the tracking devices that each website tries to attach to you, in real time. After only a cursory scroll through YouTube, I noticed that Brave blocked 23 different cross-site trackers within 10 seconds, some from Google and YouTube but others from indecipherable locations in the deep web. Brave claims that blocking all these tracking scripts means that its browser loads faster than alternatives and saves users money — as smartphones no longer have to chew through data by processing “invisible” tracking scripts.

Brave’s array of privacy and security features speaks to a fundamentally different approach to the internet compared to Google and Facebook. Brave pointedly says “we’re not in the personal data business, and that its servers have no access at all to browsing data. This is not a company pulling many punches about how it views its competition.

Brave’s philosophy of the internet is premised on the failure of the industry’s big players to protect user information. This is all the more interesting when you consider that Brave’s CEO, Brendan Eich, co-founded the company after leaving Mozilla Firefox, which he had also co-founded (not exactly an endorsement of Mozilla’s belated pivot to privacy). It’s not hard to discern the foundations of Brave’s desire to rebuild the internet from scratch — see Eich’s assessment of Facebook and Google:

It’s not just about whether they tilted the election — people get mobbed, they get trolled, they get ads they don’t like, they get malware distributed as fake ads, ransomware. This is a problem that is not being solved rapidly enough by the big powers who are making tons of money. Because they’re public companies they can’t really risk their profits, they can’t do something adverse to their stock price, and so they’re kind of stuck.

Brave’s attack on Big Tech has a further, more radical dimension: replacing the entire model of digital advertising with a new “attention economy” where users are tangibly rewarded for opting into ads. Brave proposes that 70% of the revenue from digital ads be distributed directly to the user in the form of the “Basic Attention Token,” a type of cryptocurrency. While you will be able to withdraw the token as cash, Brave will instead nudge you into distributing your tokens among the online publishers where you have spent the most time. You will have control, in other words, over “donating” your tokens to the websites that you believe deserve them.

Brave’s vision of what the internet should be is antithetical to how the internet works today.

It is worth considering just how singularly ambitious this vision is. Right now, your data is generally harvested without your knowledge and traded between technology companies and advertisers with the intent of selling things to you via targeted ads. Brave would prefer a world with very few ads, where advertisers cannot target you on the basis of your personal data, and where most of the revenue from the ad flows back to you. These two ideas about how the internet should work are poles apart.

Needless to say, the hurdles in Brave’s path are many and varied. It’s difficult to imagine the digital advertising industry happily adapting to such a shrunken role for itself. Very few of the internet’s biggest publishers have agreed even to receive donations of Basic Attention Tokens, notwithstanding that the world’s news media are being slowly strangled by Google and Facebook’s advertising models. Brave’s growth has been impressive (from 1 million active users in 2018 to 5.5 million in early 2019), but it remains a bit player compared to existing browsers. One imagines that for Brave’s vision to come to fruition, an enormous body of active users numbering in the hundreds of millions would be required. No matter the number, it will be tough to change the vested interests of the current internet.

That said, I would not be so quick to dismiss the prospects of Brave’s new internet. The tide of popular opinion is turning against Big Tech. The Harris Poll, a survey of public reputation for 100 large corporations, saw Google fall 13 places in 2019. Facebook’s plummet was even more precipitous, dropping 43 places. Facebook and Google will be industry giants for some time yet, but their Achilles heel — privacy and data — has certainly been exposed. Both companies have trumpeted a newfound focus on privacy — but whether people believe them is another matter entirely.

With the seeds of change duly sown, Brave is as well placed as it could hope. The great titans of the modern internet are engulfed in more criticism and scrutiny than they ever have been, much of it focused on their mishandling of user data. It’s not a bad time to grow a browser built on privacy features, as Brave’s growth this year illustrates.

But whether Brave amounts to more than a particularly industrious ad-blocking tool remains to be seen. On a fundamental level, Brave’s vision of what the internet should be is antithetical to how the internet works today. Identifying and targeting a genuine niche is one thing, but upending the business model of the world’s biggest technology companies is another.

However, if there is one thing we know for sure about technology, it does not stand still — the internet will undoubtedly look different in a year, let alone in a decade. Fixing the internet’s deep structural problems will not be an easy task. In the meantime, at least I have 23 fewer trackers on YouTube.

Writing about the intersection of technology and society at https://technocracy.substack.com/.

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