Brave CEO Brendan Eich: users can move markets towards privacy-preserving tech

Tech innovations, such as metaverse, excite us. At the same time, we feel as exposed as ever before. Is it possible to have both privacy and infinite opportunities that technology brings?

I've been writing about data ownership for quite some time now. The flag bearers of this concept, for example, Brittany Kaiser, repeat again and again that big tech companies have endlessly exploited our data, and it's time we get paid for it.

Privacy is becoming a mainstream concern, and various start-ups focusing on data ownership are popping up worldwide. This time, I virtually sat down with Brendan Eich, co-founder and CEO of Brave Software, to discuss the data ownership concept and what Brave is doing to put consumers back in charge.

In June 2021, Brave launched its privacy-focused search engine to compete with Google. Meanwhile, Brave Browser blocks ads, offers rewards if you choose to watch ads, and stops advertisers from profiling you. Brave also has Brave Talks, a VPN service, and is looking into the email market.

Eich, a co-founder of Mozilla and Firefox and the creator of JavaScript, discussed how decentralized web and blockchain technology could be used to advance the interests of people who are against user-hostile big tech during Web Summit 2021 in Lisbon this month.

"I'm in favor of consumers who always jump on the next thing, whether it's cool technology or privacy-preserving technology, or both. Those users can move markets," he told CyberNews.

Brendan Eich, Brave CEO
Brendan Eich

Users like me are getting cautious about privacy. At the same time, we get excited about new technology and devices that come along. Do we have to choose between risking our data while enjoying what technology has to offer and disappearing from the grid entirely? Can we have both?

You can have both. But you have to avoid these big data vampires that grew up in the West 25 years ago on the Web 2.0 or Web1.0 even, just by having a server that everyone went to and gave their data to and had to log in to use that data. You gave a lot of power to certain companies, and the winners used that power to conquer adjacent markets, which has now got them in trouble in the US and Europe.

People gave up too much power to these servers that they went to and logged in to. If you keep doing that, even if that's for the Metaverse or something fun or new, you will have the same problem. Is there a better way to do this? I think there is. We've been building secure systems for a long time, using cryptographic protocols. Some of the cryptography here was also useful for cryptocurrencies, enabling people to directly send assets to one another without going through an intermediary, a trusted third party, a big server, or a big bank. If we use cryptography, if we use end-point software, especially the browser, which is the universal app, if we further use privacy-preserving protocols, which also involve cryptography, I think we can have both the fun, innovative parts of technology and privacy or anonymity where we want it, or pseudo-anonymity.

But we need to have people develop these products, and we need users to use them. It's not in the interest of Google or Facebook to develop these protocols. They are looking to keep doing what they've done, keep being big data vampires that get even bigger through the next technology cycle.

They are getting into trouble for this. Data is now recognized as a liability. Like yours, private companies may be causing some changes, but do you think there is a need for new regulations and laws to change this landscape you are describing?

I'm actually more in favor of consumers, the users who always jump on the next thing, whether it's cool technology or privacy-preserving technology, or both. Those users can move markets. If you look at regulators, they often seem to be looking into the past to decide what to do about the future, or worse, they get captured by the industry they regulate. That happens all the time. That's an unsolved problem in our society.

Regulators are slow, they may dictate an older, obsolete idea as a solution, or they may just be captured by incumbents who kind of freeze the world the way it is, which gives those incumbents perpetual power.

But there've been regulations. GDPR is the big one. And yet, it was written in a fairly abstract way, so it was up to the actual data protection authority, like the ICO (Information Commissioner's Office) in the UK, to figure out what it means and to enforce it. This is the same problem we have all over administrative states in the West, at least. Where you have very vague high-level laws that don't even define their terms, and then it's up to the bureaucrats to figure it out. And again, those bureaucrats can be captured by the industries they regulate. I think that has happened with the ICO in the UK.

But there are still [positive] cases. Johnny Ryan, a Senior Fellow at the Irish Council of Civil Liberties, has taken regulators and big tech to court. He's trying [to make] the regulators do their job in the face of difficulties, and he's trying to hold big tech to account.

I think that the regulatory aspect is important. It's almost like activism. It's not going to generate new products people need, but it's going to hold the incumbents to account, it's going to hold the regulators to account, which will help innovators like Brave, I hope, succeed. But we are not looking for an unfair advantage, for governments to pick winners. We are just trying to give products to users and those lead users who can then move markets and move standards eventually.

Sounds like you have to go viral and everything will change. So far, how is it going for Brave Browser and the search engine that you've just launched?

There's always a problem of getting the word out because many people still don't even know about us. We do a little bit of paid growth on platforms people use through ads. Like the Google App store. We do some paid growth on that, for instance. And you are competing with other browsers, and you are only allowed to use a small set of keywords, but it's valuable to do that. Mainly, organic growth helps us because we can be sure that our users like us and can talk to us through Reddit and Twitter, and then we give them great customer support.

Brave grew to 42 million users this month. Brave Search is new, but it is also growing quickly. Brave Talk is very new, and we haven't promoted it too much, but we are starting to, so it's getting an uptick in use. And we are tying all these ideas together along with VPN, which is on iOS and coming to Android, into a free and premium product set.

Some of our users know that if you aren't paying for it, then you are probably the product. There's no such thing as a free lunch. They like paying for things, and we can give them reasonable prices and better privacy properties. We can even allow them to earn basic attention tokens (BATs) through private ads and then use those to buy VPN day passes or things like that. We are adding a utility for the BAT in these premium products. I would say the browser, and then BAT, Brave Rewards, the Search, and now Talks, and VPN are coming up about as fast as each curve did in the past. We are growing at a 5-8% month-over-month rate. We've done this since launch, and we haven't had stumbles.

We want to keep growing, and I think that's important. Virality can be great if you have a hit game and suddenly become a top game in the app stores, and you can get to very large users until they get tired of the game. Brave is more of a long-term value proposition.

People are looking at us now that we've done Brave Search and saying, where's Brave Mail. And I've tweeted that we are looking into it. People are not trusting Google anymore, and they don't think Gmail is working as well as it did. They also wonder about Google's trustworthiness with all their data because they still have eerie experiences where they do a search, or they do something in Gmail, and then they get an ad (if they are not blocking Google Ads), and it seems related to their Gmail or their Search terms.

You mentioned premium products. I just wonder whether people are willing to pay for online services, having in mind they are used to trading their privacy and personal data for free services?

You can see this in Premium Apple charges because it uses privacy as a differentiator against Google and with some justice. So you see it also with ProtonMail, which is paid for. I use it, among other mail services. You see this with the VPNs. People do pay for VPNs, and it's not a commodity because each VPN is different in its security properties and reputation.

I've noticed Kape technologies bought Private Internet Access and ExpressVPN. There's some consolidation going on, which may involve elements of trust being degraded. You can't be sure who's running the virtual private server or what their ISP (internet service provider) is. VPNs are often used for getting access to a video that's blocked due to copyright issues of some sort. That's one use case of VPNs. But people do pay for them, and people pay for Zoom. We are looking to compete where people do pay.

One of the attractive features of Brave Browser could be the fact that I can earn some money as a user. How many people are opting in for this reward program? Can you actually earn money?

They are earning, depending on how many ads they take. Some opt-in, turn off the ads and fund their own custodial wallet through a partner like Gemini. So they can not have ads but can give back to their favorite creators. Most of them take the ads. And you are seeing some tweets from them, saying, I made five dollars this month. It all depends on the ads, what region you are in, how the ads are paying in that region.

I think around eight million people have opted in now. That cohort grows as we grow. And we are also creating more incentives for people to opt-in. For instance, all our premium products opt you into Brave Rewards. So you'll get those ads unless you turn them off, and you'll get privately delivered tokens, which you can then use to buy day passes and offset costs for the premium products.

What is this premium bill? What can I get for free, and what can money buy me?

First of all, you can use Brave as a browser and not pay or get ads. That's the default. We shield you from all tracking and give you greater performance, battery life, reduced data plan. That's how Brave always works. Then, if you want, you can opt-in to rewards. Or, if you buy premium products, that opts you into rewards, but you will also be paying for some of those premium products unless you can use the freemium. Freemium is where you have premium or some free usage, but you have to pay after a certain number of Brave Talk calls or pay after a certain number of VPN day passes.

There's always a free leg up to a point. And the free leg sometimes is ad-supported. To give you an example, AnchorFree is a VPN that has a free leg - it's freemium. The free leg puts ads in your browser. But people want to use VPN without ads. We are not pushing ads into the free leg of our VPN, except through the reward system, which is separate.

If you want to get our VPN, you are going to be paying for it. That's, we think, all serious VPN buyers do, the gamers, and the video content region shifters, and people who want a VPN while traveling or in a wireless hot-spot, they are willing to pay for it. They want a high-quality VPN engineered by a top team. In fact, our partner, Guardian app, is a top team led by Will Strafach.

We are aware of the issues VPNs have had in the past. We are very concerned about VPN because it has such a potential for abuse, and so we are working with the Guardian App team on that. And that's a paid model. We may someday have day passes, as I said. It's our goal to have that utility for VPN [day passes], so people can start trying and see if they like it.

How are you working with advertisers? Are you approaching specific companies, are they reaching out? Do you work with third-party advertisers?

It's a direct sales approach which means we are generally talking directly to the big brands. We are getting mainstream ad buyers, such as Ford, PayPal, Toyota, Mastercard, Intel, Crocs, BMW, Walmart, Amazon, Binance, Coinbase, and many others.

Because our users are off the grid, they block the tracking of ads. They either use Brave loyally and exclusively or, if they use other browsers and block gets, they are high-value consumers on the web who they can't be reached, except through our ads systems. That gives us an advantage going out with direct sales outreach to getting these ad deals.

Third-party ads are a nightmare because they are mediated through ad exchanges, mainly Google, and they utterly depend on this false pseudo petroleum approach to data, which is not at all like a commodity. Your data is very personal, even if you are aggregated into a cohort that might be likely to buy a new Ford truck.

The trackers are always trying to profile you and put you into these different cohorts or do studies on you and see if you are about to buy something. And that means you are being raided for your data, and it costs you running all those ads and the scripts that load them, costs your battery life, costs your data plan, too. You are paying for the ads. It's an outrage.

The trackers don't stop there. They use those data profiles to take advantage of you elsewhere, apart from helping the brands sell you something or the publisher where the ad usually appears gets whatever revenue is left over that the ad tech intermediaries didn't take. Intermediaries, these data vampires, would take 70% of the gross ads spent.

And that doesn't even get into the waste and abuse of ad fraud where the marketers, the brands, and the agencies pay for ads that never appear in front of a real person. They go into some bot, and the bot is pretending to look at a page. It's not an actual publisher page. Maybe it's some scumware site, and the fraud actor gets ad revenue that's left after intermediaries take out their cut. There's a real problem with ad tech today, and that's why we are making direct sales. We are not going to participate in this tracking economy. That's such a one-sided thing.

So if you don’t track and profile users, how can advertisers measure the success of their ad campaigns?

We give them aggregate reporting, which does not allow identifying an individual, and our users remain anonymous. But because of the untrustworthy nature of ad tech vendors, often they want to do their own analytics. As we grow, they often say, 'I want the same analytics for my ad campaign with you that I use with Google.' And it usually turns out to be Google Analytics. We block Google Analytics because it is absolutely a tracker. Google has been caught red-handed tracking you, including private windows and Google Analytics.

We block Google Analytics, but can we help these ad buyers who want to see our performance against other places via Google Analytics. Google Analytics uses JavaScript, so that's what we block. We can put our own workalike replacements for those JavaScript APIs into the ad landing page. Those, instead of calling Google, can call our server without identifying the user through a cryptographic protocol. Then we can do a server-to-server call to Google to update ad buyers' analytics, so they'll see how we perform compared to the other places where they are running ad campaigns.

Sometimes it is a matter of trust, and sometimes they want to see a single dashboard showing them all their different ad campaigns on different media, and that's fair to want to have Brave in there.

[Brave claims that the average click-through rate (CTR) for a Brave Ads campaign is 8%, well above the industry average of 2%.]

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