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Web browser Brave is leading the fight against surveillance capitalism

Tue 28 Jan 2020 | Dr. Johnny Ryan

Dr Johnny Ryan, Chief Policy & Industry Relations Officer at private web browser Brave, explains how the company is taking the fight to the personal data industry

“Everyone is being heavily surveilled and profiled,” warns Dr Johnny Ryan, Chief Policy Officer at Brave, a new privacy-focused web browser. “Information about what you’re reading, watching and listening to online is being broadcast out to hundreds of thousands of companies; this happens hundreds of billions of times a day, everywhere.” It is, in Ryan’s words, “the biggest date breach that we’ve ever experienced.”

Although awareness of tech companies’ data gathering has grown in recent years – especially with the 2018 introduction of GDPR – many consumers still struggle to know what’s happening with their data and who they can trust with it. Ryan – who will deliver a keynote at the Cloud Expo Europe Main Stage this March – says Brave is the answer to this problem.

What is surveillance capitalism and why should you care?

While being followed around the internet by tracking-based ads may feel like a small inconvenience for an otherwise free service, Ryan suggests that the current model that internet browsers like Google Chrome permit is deeply problematic.

“If you think about elections, I can profile you based on everything you’re reading, watching and listening to, the apps you’re using, the whole shebang. I can sell that profile to anyone who wants to buy it. This may threaten democracy.” Ryan is quick to point out this is an extreme scenario, but it is something to be concerned about.

More concretely though, the enormous data leakage in the online advertising causes real risks to individuals. “Will this have an impact on the price of your next airline tickets? Your seat might cost less or more than mine. Will you get health insurance? Will you get that mortgage?”

In the short term, handing over data might not feel like a big issue to the average consumer, but Ryan says we need to think of the bigger picture: “We are not thinking about the long term hazards of being profiled by companies who will provide a profile to anyone who pays for it.”

Join Johnny at Cloud Expo Europe, 11-12 March 2020, ExCeL London

The vast data breach at the heart of surveillance capitalism
11 March 2020, 12:00 – 12:25
Main Stage

Brave new world

And this is why Brave was developed. The browser was co-founded By Brendan Eich, the brains behind JavaScript and a co-founder of Mozilla Firefox. Ryan explains that among Brave’s staff “many, many, many people suffer from a syndrome called adtech remorse.” Employees have previously worked at ad tech firms. In prior lives, many built the systems of the surveillance economy without appreciating how they would devolve into engines of mass surveillance.

Brave was designed to be different. “Instead of having Google’s ‘don’t be evil’ mantra, our mantra is ‘can’t be evil’”. Brave has designed a browser which cannot feed private data about the user back to Brave or anyone else. Instead, this data is held securely in the user’s desktop or mobile browser and it cannot be accessed by third parties.

Crucially, to preserve the sustainability of internet, Brave is not just an adblocker. In fact, ads are allowed and indeed encouraged on the browser – users even get a small cut of the fee for each ad they see in the form of a cryptographic token that can be exchanged for coupons or drawn down in cash (users can also opt to see no ads at all).

However, what’s different is the way that ads reach the user. In other browsers, a user will be tracked around the internet and receive ads based on their searches and interactions. In Brave, by contrast, this private data isn’t sent out to third parties. Instead, if the user decides they want ads, their profile is stored entirely in the browser on their own device. This means that they will still see ads which might be of interest to them, but it will be filtered by their browser, and not some third-party bidding system.

“There is no outward communication other than to say that a totally anonymous user has visited this website in a period of time. There isn’t even the ability to break people apart using timestamps. We’re just an aggregate system formed by a community of devices that report back together as a mass. We have no way of breaking that data down.”

Ryan argues that this is a win for everyone. For the user, it means their private data isn’t shared with thousands of companies around the world. But it’s valuable to advertisers too. “Today, advertisers are throwing money at what they call ‘digital’. But, they have no idea who’s really seeing the ads, or whether those viewers are actually human.” He points to recent examples on Facebook where several billion bot accounts were deleted – all of which were being ‘shown’ ads which an advertiser had paid for, despite the accounts that saw the ads not actually existing.

Ryan says this approach helps publishers too. Many of the middlemen between advertisers and publisher websites will take a cut of every pound spent on ads for sites like The Guardian or MailOnline. This all means that publishers get less money from ad revenue than they would have in the past. Indeed, the only people who don’t win with Brave is the “data broker industry – for which it spells doom.”

A better internet

Even if you’re unfazed about a litany of adtech firms juggling your data, Brave has something to offer. Ryan says that the browser is significantly faster than other browsers precisely because it doesn’t come bloated with tracking data and cookies.

What’s more, the click through rate on ads on the browser is (currently) significantly higher than it is on other more mainstream competitors. Why? Because ads are actually more relevant to the user. Brave is also building bridges with privacy campaigners around the world and works to enforce GDPR, encouraging other companies to play by the rules of the regulation in order to create a level playing field.

In an era when the established internet giants are less trusted than ever, the opportunity for browsers which promise greater privacy is enormous. Will fortune favour the brave?

Experts featured:

Dr. Johnny Ryan

Chief Policy & Industry Relations Officer


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