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A Brave New Way to Fund Journalism

Project taps ‘attention economy’ to let you pay for the information you actually use.

Bryan Carney 20 Jul

Bryan Carney is director of web production at The Tyee. This story was supported by The Tyee’s Innovation in Journalism fund and a dedicated reader.

Publications in Canada and abroad are trying a find ways to survive as ad revenues plummet.

StarMetro, which recently re-launched as a unified version of the former Toronto Star and various Metro offices across the country, is the latest to try a paywall to make readers subscribe and increase revenues.

The Tyee, like The Guardian, has chosen to seek direct support from readers. Support from readers is our fastest-growing revenue stream, more than doubling in the past four years.

Most of that declining ad revenue has been lost to Facebook and Google, the current clear winners in the competitive “attention economy.” They don’t create content, they simply sell advertisers access to you, based on their craftily collected information on your interests and activities.

But what if there was a way to capture revenue for content creators — like news outlets — based on the amount of attention paid to each, without relying on such third parties or even advertisers?

That’s what the founders of the Basic Attention Token (BAT) have set out to do.

BAT aims to commodify user attention without necessarily involving advertisers, using a tradable cryptocurrency.

So you decide how many BATs — cryptocurrency units — you want to spend on content each month and buy them. Currently you can claim a digital wallet and a starting bonus of currency when you sign up.

When you go online, you use the Brave browser, part of the project. It’s a web browser just like Mozilla Firefox or Google Chrome, with some special features.

One is royalty tracking. So if you spend time on a site like The Tyee, which has registered as a publisher on BAT, and other participants, BAT automatically calculates your time on the site and shares your payment among publishers based on who is winning your attention. Publishers and users will be able to convert the BATs into other currencies— Canadian dollars, for example — based on market value on a number of exchanges.

The founders are pitching some other significant advantages.

The Brave browser has anonymous tracking, eliminating the ability of businesses like Google to follow you around the web and sell ads based on your browsing. And it makes it easy to block or allow ads from websites.

That can mean pages load much faster, and real savings for users.

The BAT introduction video cites an investigation by the New York Times that found ads create about $23 US a month in bandwidth charges for a typical American mobile user.

A Facebook employee, writing on crunched these numbers in 2015. The $23 a consumer spent on bandwidth to receive the ads was 16 times more than the companies were paying for the ads.

The real winners in the advertising attention economy (or war)? Data providers. And the study was done in the U.S. where better competition in mobile data has resulted in lower prices. The disparity between costs for ads and the revenue they bring is probably greater in Canada.

Still, ad blocking, which is already used on more than 600 million browsers, cuts out a much-needed revenue stream for publishers. Even The Tyee’s thoughtfully curated advertisements will disappear with Brave and most add-on ad blockers.

But the difference is that Brave adds another revenue stream.

Users can select a monthly amount they would like to contribute to publishers and browse as they normally do. They can currently claim a digital wallet and a starting bonus of currency when they sign up. The credits are allocated to participating publishers based on their time on the sites.

Future plans for the Brave platform include allowing users who don’t want to contribute their own money to earn BAT credits by visiting registered sites with ads enabled. They’ll receive half the reward, and the site will receive the other half.

Users can use those credits they gained to reward a specific publisher — using them to pay for premium content, for instance — or they can donate all the credits they receive to be shared among publishers based on their browsing rather than accumulating any for the browser.

So it’s opt-out of ads and pay publishers automatically with cryptocurrency, or opt-in and pay publishers automatically with attention.

Privacy concerns

If your first thought was that Brave is in this to harvest your data and become the supreme ad platform, the company says it’s ensured you don’t have to worry about that.

The tracking of sites you visit is fully anonymized and not sold or shared with anyone.

“Even with Brave Payments 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,” the Brave privacy policy says. “Instead, we aggregate contributions among all Brave users, and we cannot trace contributions to individual users, or link any of your contributions together.”

The project’s founder, Brendan Eich, has a pretty good track record in contributing positively to the way the web evolves and protecting users’ privacy and data.

He is a founder of Mozilla, creators of the open-source Firefox browser (and Netscape before that). He also created a little something called Javascript — a web programming language that is a basic building block of every modern website on the internet today.

If you want to be part of this brave adventure, give it a whirl. Let us know what you think of our ad-free layout. Do your eyes feel more relaxed? Would you pay for the experience? Or do you miss hearing from our partners?

Time will tell if this experiment — a true practical application for cryptocurrencies, when it is often hard to wade through the hype — will revolutionize the online publishing world the way Eich’s previous efforts have revolutionized the entire world wide web.  [Tyee]

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