Going back to the future with Web 3.0

The browser startup Brave just hit a major milestone, rolling out their long-awaited feature enabling users to get compensated for viewing ads sold by Brave to various consumer brands. Brave boasts that this system improves user privacy greatly, since it also includes blocking of third-party trackers from traditional ad software by Google, Facebook, and peers.

I've said before I'm a big fan of this project. But in fairness, it is worth noting that Brave has its share of critics as well, like this guy whose tweet caught my attention today:

To translate his complaints here from nerdspeak into plain English, they boil down to the following two points, which others have raised as well:

  • Brave is just inserting itself as a new middleman in this new ad ecosystem, very much akin to Google and Facebook in the old one.
  • The payments aspect of Brave requires users to manage their deposits and withdrawals of fiat currency funds through the finance startup Uphold. From Brave's standpoint, this helps with regulatory compliance, especially regarding "know your customer" rules. (KYC for short.) But some crypto purists say it defeats the purpose of a tokenized economy in which users would be better off managing their own funds without traditional banking mechanisms altogether.

I'm glad people are raising these concerns, even if I don't view them as fatal flaws for Brave myself. In short, I think both issues are imminently addressable with future iterations of the Brave software. That's especially true since Brave is using an entirely open source development process, with no secret algorithms akin to those of the big boys.

That said, hey, the Brave team is made up of imperfect human beings. It has been – and will continue to be – very healthy for people to ask tough questions and hold them accountable over time. We all basically failed to do that as users of Google and Facebook 10 or 15 years ago, when they were overly lionized as benevolent bearers of software fairy dust, so let's not do that again. It invites bad behavior.

One other really surprising impression struck me as I read the tweet traffic about Brave today. By using the browser as a central hub to remake the ad market, Brave is in some ways effectively emulating a much older startup – America Online.

Think about it. In its late-90's heyday, AOL made "portal" software that created a controlled context for each user's experience of the internet. Most content was free, but some required payment – via AOL billing, of course. And the system also stored and controlled your online identity.

Except for being open source software, and the inclusion of a few modern updates like a crypto wallet, Brave basically does a lot of the same stuff. The company is a portal play, ultimately.

Mind you, I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing. At least AOL had a simpler, more transparent relationship with its users than later tech giants have. You paid for AOL directly -- not by making some byzantine trade-off of your personal information that no one really understands – and you got connected to the internet in return. That was it.

If Brave and other Web 3.0 startups can restore that sort of straightforward approach to users -- but of course implement it in a more modern way -- they'll score a big win in my book. A semi-centralized solution like the Brave browser is after all still relatively more decentralized – key qualifier – than what 99 percent of web users are currently experiencing on Big Tech's platforms. I'll take that trade-off every time.

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