If you thought internet ads were annoying, consider this: The websites you visit could now be harnessing your computer to do cryptocurrency mining.
Digital currencies demand a lot of computing power. To complete each block of transactions, computer owners around the world must race to solve an extremely difficult cryptographic puzzle, with the winner getting paid in the relevant cryptocurrency. To increase their chances, such “miners” invest vast amounts in processing capacity — building server farms in far-flung places where electricity is cheap — and are always on the lookout for inexpensive ways to get more.
Website publishers, for their part, are constantly seeking new ways to generate revenue. Subscriptions can be a hard sell. Ads are less than ideal: They often repel users, they can be hijacked by bots and Russians, and big players such as Google typically take a cut of the revenue. So some are resorting to an untapped resource: selling miners access to the computing power of the people who visit their sites.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say you go to a site devoted to cat pictures. When your web browser loads the first page, it also initiates a script that instructs your computer’s processor to do calculations for a cryptocurrency miner, who could be located in Germany or just about anywhere. You might notice nothing more than a slightly slower computer and a slightly higher electricity bill. The miner pays the website publisher for the use of your resources.
Reputable web publishers aren’t going to hijack your computer for profit. But for sites that haven’t had much luck with traditional ad networks — particularly in China — browser-based mining has become a popular revenue stream. Earlier this month, a script even surfaced on Showtime’s Anytime website. An experiment at The Pirate Bay, a hub for largely pirated content, elicited a positive response from users who preferred it to the pornographic banners that typically appear on the site.
The idea of capturing value from underutilised computer resources goes back to the early days of the web. In 1999, a team at the University of California, Berkeley, created the Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing, a software system that uses the spare capacity on personal computers for scientific purposes. The project was most famous for SETI@home, a screensaver that contributed to the hunt for signs of alien life in radio signals. Since then, it has aided climate prediction, protein folding, drug discovery and many other applications. Today, more than 300 000 users actively participate, making it the largest computing grid in the world.
Such distributed computing isn’t necessarily cost-effective. Given the related energy expense, participants in the Berkeley system could have achieved more by just donating money for cloud computing services. In the case of browser-based mining, visitors are compensating publishers with their computer resources and energy consumption, involving local utility companies in each transaction. They could probably get a better deal by just paying a few cents per page view.
The history of the internet has demonstrated, though, that micropayments don’t work very well. One possible explanation is that the decision-making costs associated with each transaction outweigh the actual value transfer. If I were to charge everyone five cents for access to this article, the time each visitor would have to spend deliberating whether to part with that hard-earned nickel would make the deal look prohibitively expensive.
Hence, the most viable kind of internet payment is one that doesn’t look like a payment at all. Hundreds of thousands of volunteers willingly donated their computing power to SETI@home because it felt costless, even though it consumed $8 of energy each month. Ad-based models have prevailed because users don’t consciously put a dollar value on their attention and data.
In-browser cryptocurrency mining is an inefficient way of paying for content, and it’s not clear that users will welcome the appropriation of resources. On the other hand, it’s potentially less invasive than targeted advertising — which many people find creepy — and takes advantage of underutilised processor resources. Ultimately, mining could make the business model of internet publishing a bit less broken.