What’s under the hood of the new Brave browser?

Which browser – or browsers – rule the internet? Usage stats tell us it’s Chrome, followed by Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Opera and the un-edgy Edge.

And yet, beyond this mainstream exists a surprising number of alternatives. Browsers aren’t yet done and dusted it seems and, if anything, new ones are on the uptick. The question is why.

Privacy and performance are plausible hooks but, with the exception of Tor, it’s difficult to pin down how neo-browsers offer much improvement. The suspicion is that some – including a plethora of ad-blocking add-ons – have latched on to these themes to front opaque business models with hidden downsides.

Then there’s Brave, a new Chromium-based browser for the ad-blocking age that would doubtless have fallen into obscurity like all the others if it weren’t for the fame of the man behind it, Brendan Eich.

It was he who invented JavaScript while working for Netscape in the 1990s before leaving to co-found Mozilla, a company he left in difficult circumstances in 2014 after only a week as CEO.

If anyone knows about browsers, it’s Eich, surely. Why another browser then?

Eich stated in an early blog that Brave wants to rebuild the crumbling relationship between users, advertisers and publishers by re-balancing everyone’s interests more evenly.

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Today’s big browsers are like windows through which advertising pours, along with ad-tracking systems that boost their commercial prowess. Inevitably, this messes up privacy because ads must watch people’s behaviour. Add Google’s search dominance and the problem deepens.

What companies like Google say, basically, is trust us – yes, we watch you but at least we’re the devil you know.  Earnest rivals such as Mozilla lack Google’s conflicts of interest but struggle to stem programmatic advertising because that means retrofitting privacy to the skeleton of an ageing browser model.

We’re left with weak anonymity modes or better ones with compromises – Mozilla’s recent Focus app is more a stripped-down search utility than a full-service browser for instance. Browsing can also be scandalously slow, which drives people to disingenuous ad-blocking tech.

Brave’s alternative looks standard-issue at first: there’s ad-blocking (fingerprinting protection and script blocking), support for password managers (LastPass, Dashlane and 1Password) and HTTPS Anywhere integration. It mentions anti-phishing protection. However, under the hood:

Brave currently runs an experimental automated and anonymous micro-donation system for publishers called Brave Payments.

Originally based on Bitcoin, this, it transpires, is about to be replaced by an Ethereum-based payments system called Basic Attention Tokens (BAT). When launched to fund the startup behind Brave earlier this year, BATs were seized upon by speculators who think they’ll increase in value.

Brave, then, is less a browser than a demo client for what is claimed to be a fairer ad platform in which advertisers, publishers and users are rewarded for taking part in what Eich calls a blockchain-based “game” (Brave gets a cut too).

Brave’s BAT platform shields the anonymity of users while guaranteeing the authenticity of their viewing in detail. Only genuine ads are served so there’s no malvertising.

Eich is a vague about whether users get a share of BATs – it’s a “possibility” in some cases. If users don’t, what incentive is there to use it? What it offers – ad-blocking, less malvertising, and perhaps some performance gains – can be found in browsers without BAT.

It’s a fascinating concept but, ironically, its advantages are hidden from people in the same way that the surveillance of today’s ad-tracking systems is.

It’s often said that with Google and Facebook, the user becomes the product. Brave’s alternative of turning users into tokens sounds like a modest advance at best.