Advertisements: they pay my salary. They may also promote some fine products, but most importantly they let people read the news without having to pay for it. Ads on the web are also annoying, can be a real security risk, and are generally detested by readers.
Certain web ads have been used to deliver malicious code to a website visitors’ computer, for example. This has happened often enough—at Forbes last year, the Daily Mail in 2015, and on sketchier sites daily and without fanfare—that the phenomenon even has its own name: “malvertising.” This has contributed to the rise of adblocking software, and more creative approaches from publishers to capture revenue through methods other than ads, like paywalls. Basically, it seems like a lot of people have had it up to fricking here with online ads.
The latest and boldest move away from ads yet came from Salon on Tuesday, when the outlet announced it will now give users the option to mine cryptocurrency with their computers rather than see ads. Salon calls this “suppressing ads,” the other option for readers is to turn off their adblocker (and thus, see ads on the site.)
While this is pretty much the ideal use case for in-browser mining services if there ever was one, it seems like everybody really hated the initiative. Some commentators even described Salon’s scheme as “malware” because mining essentially hijacks your computer’s processing power and cranks it to the max. Cryptographer Kenn White called it a “terrible idea” on Twitter because you are trusting a third party to give your machine instructions (like many scripts on the web), and Dogecoin creator Jackson Palmer called it “sketchy” and took issue with how Salon positioned mining as capturing “unused” computing power, arguing instead that it would waste CPU cycles and drain batteries.
Even considering the shortfalls of Salon’s implementation so far, I’m not so convinced this is a terrible idea.
Mainly, I’m willing to give this a shot because ads come with a host of unique problems for sites doing journalism, and users. For news outlets, advertising dependence has become financially perilous because Facebook and Google have cornered the online advertising market, and adblocking further cuts off revenue. And depending on their implementation, ads can be a security and transparency nightmare for users, which is why many people use ad blockers in the first place.
Salon tells me relatively clearly in a lengthy FAQ what its program is going to do to my computer before I opt in—my fans may turn on while my computer crunches math problems, for example—whereas malvertising does its work in secret for as long as it remains undiscovered. I generally have no idea which cookies, plugins, etc., most sites are loading in my browser without my consent anyway; at least Salon asks, and a cryptocurrency miner doesn’t track my activity across the web like third-party ad cookies do.
But, most importantly: While mining cryptocurrency I don’t have to see ads—which is the goal if I’m using an adblocker—and I am also financially supporting journalism. As for how much money mining will bring in, that’s unclear; it’s worth noting, though, that in little over a month a charity called Bail Bloc raised $3,000 mining Monero.
In ethical terms, it’s worth noting that advertising usually supports multinational corporations as well as their attendant environmental and human disasters, while cryptocurrency mining (the process through which blocks of Monero transaction data are secured) supports a decentralized network. It’s an infrastructure service for the Monero blockchain—and further diversifies the community of people maintaining it—for which Salon receives a financial reward. If you think Monero is worse than Nike, that’s fair I suppose.
I get the pushback to Salon’s initiative, though, I do. In-browser cryptocurrency mining has almost exclusively been the purview of criminals since about 2014. Even the service Salon is using, Coinhive, has been used by all sorts of criminals and hackers recently. There is a pervasive aura of impropriety around this stuff, and public opinion is stacked against it. When a website mines cryptocurrency without telling you—hijacking your hardware—that is definitely malware. And there’s something kind of messed up about paying for journalism with the computational equivalent of rolling coal, though I’m unsure of how it stacks up against the environmental cost of ad networks that run servers, have offices, and so on.
Could Salon’s implementation of cryptocurrency mining be better? I think so. The initial splash page for opting into mining merely asks visitors to “suppress ads” and says Salon will make use of “unused” computer power, making no mention of mining. The linked FAQ is much more in-depth, however. And after you opt-in, another, more descriptive pop up from Coinhive appears. The miner also pinned my CPU’s usage to 100 percent, which is excessive—although I didn’t notice any slowdown on a PC with an Intel i5 CPU, and the amount of resources Salon used ratcheted down as I opened more applications on my desktop. The miner also kept running after I navigated away from Salon (but kept it open in a tab), which could potentially be very annoying for the real tab monsters out there. This puts an onus on users to ensure Salon doesn’t hinder their browser experience here.
But despite these potential pitfalls, I’m willing to give this initiative a fair shake. Journalism desperately needs new revenue models that let it stand on its own legs, unshackled from the whims of social media algorithms and ad buys. Is this it? I’m really not sure, but Salon is taking a big step in finding alternatives to ads.
A colleague once told me he’d rather do 10 push-ups than view a Forbes ad interstitial; just think of mining like your computer doing the push-ups for you.
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