Meta Monetization Tags

A <meta> tag for internet donations. Easy interoperable ways to support websites and creatives, without any need for ads.

I had originally planned to write this a while ago, and the outline of the post was sitting in my drafts folder. In the meantime, the web has been marching forwards, and someone’s actually implemented a prototype of exactly what I was going to describe! Great! I should get a move on and write this, then.

photo by Josh Appel on unsplash

The idea

The idea came to me when I was looking at how Vivaldi does its (entirely in-browser) history tracking. You get lots of nice graphs and the top sites you visit – which got me thinking. I don’t like ads, so I use an ad blocker. This is primarily because I disagree with the business model of tracking people online, and it’s a stretch to find any advertiser service online that doesn’t track people. So I just block everything to be safe.

But what if there was a way that, and the end of the month, I could identify my frequently visited sites and in a few clicks send off some donations to cover the cost of using them, in place of the ads?

Brave

Some would be quick to mention “Brave” and its BAT system, but I have a couple of problems with that:

  • It’s proprietary. Sure, you can argue it’s trying to be built openly, but right now this kind of think only works if you use the brave browser – it’s not easily interoperable.
  • It only works if you use the BAT cryptocurrency system, and cryptocurrencies of any kind are a mess in my mind. That will hamper adoption and make it difficult to manage.
  • Only having one payment system creates a barrier for entry that forces people to invest in something they might not want to. This would turn people away from the idea.
  • Brave has, in the past, been embroiled in unpleasantness in regards to how transparent it is with donations, and this could again make people wary of signing up to any system associated with them.

So how could you take the benefits of this and make it available to any site, any browser, and any payment service?

Ad Replacements

In the past I have seen rumblings in the tech field with companies that say that you can pay them, and then they’ll pay all of the sites you visit so you can avoid seeing ads. This has many of the same problems.

Everyone is tied into one ecosystem, and it’s completely proprietary. This kind of service also has massive privacy implications as it relies entirely on tracking how individual users browse the web. A bad idea in my mind.

Go Meta

The end goal would be to somehow let the user track which sites they’ve visited that would be happy to accept donations.

Requirements

What do you need for this? As I see it there is one key requirement:

  • A URI to identify where to send money to (a payment website with an Id, a crypto wallet if that’s what you really want, a link to a subscription sign-up page)

And some optional requirements:

  • Specify a recommended donation amount per view or per month or some other interval (ad networks might pay you £0.01 per unique view – if you’re lucky)
  • Include more than one payment option (it doesn’t make sense to just have a crypto wallet, as then you rule out anyone who would be willing to pay by card)

What web technologies are available for this?

Headers

These are sent with every web request, and are easily extendable. Perhaps you could imagine some kind of :

X-Donor: URI-to-payment

But this doesn’t make it very easy to attach extra attributes to the donor URI, and make sit rather awkward if you want to specify more than one option.

<meta> Tags

These are small bits of text that are included on webpages, normally invisible to users. A <meta> could contain a URI and a suggested donation description, and you could specify more than one.

This is what is used and proposed by the article which I recently read: https://css-tricks.com/site-monetization-with-coil-and-removing-ads-for-supporters/. The model proposed here is more of a direct donation system and uses something proprietary, but the great thing about having a standard way of identifying people is that you could use any system of making donations.

The big drawback to <meta> is that on sites like YouTube & Twitch, the owners (Google and Amazon, respectively) don’t let you edit the page HTML, and might not be too happy about people suggesting revenue streams that undercut them. This is a problem I can’t really think of a solution to.

Legitimate Meta Tags

Assuming your browser (or any user agent) comes across a site that purports to accept donations, what does it do next? Well, it needs to verify that this is a legit donation. I propose a number of requirements for this:

  • The site must be served over HTTPS, otherwise bad actors like ISPs could inject any donor URIs they wanted in transit
  • The donor tag must be present at document load time, otherwise bad actors like extensions could inject their own URIs

What does the browser do next?

But assuming you have a legitimate tag present, what next? In my mind, the browsers actions need to preserve the privacy of the end user and not make tracking and making payments as transparent as possible.

The current explainer offers a good suggestion on how an individual payment could be made, but this is specifically about making individual payments to a specific site in a way that is similar to the “Ad replacement” solutions mentioned previously. I think a browser could go above and beyond this.

Have a little icon in the address bar indicating this site accepts donations, clicking on it could show you an array of options, including an immediate link to make a payment. My initial idea could then also be represented here.

If the site had some kind of “suggested donation per view” attribute associated with a donor tag, then the browser could remember any past donations (maintaining privacy, so only on-device or in some kind of encrypted sync setup) and show how much you’ve spent, and how much is left until your next “recommended” donation.

The reverse could also be possible. If you haven’t made a donation to a site recently, it could tell you something akin to “You’ve visited this site 128 times in the past month, do you want to make a donation (suggested £0.50)?”

Of course, my idea of suggested donations might come across a bit heavy handed, but in any case I think it would encourage users to think about what sites they want to donate to if the browser keeps a record of the one’s they’ve visited most. Perhaps when visiting the history page of their browser, a user would be presented with a “top” list of sites that accept donations that they’ve visited in the past month, and if they’ve ever donated to them before.

Summary

I think it’s great that this idea, which was just stuck in my head a couple of months ago, is one that other people seem willing to work on and implement, and I think that these are great steps forward.

At the end of the day I don’t know if there really needs to be a specific flow in mind for what a browser ought to do if it comes across such a <meta> tag, it just needs to:

  • Empower the end user to decide how they should make a donation
  • Maintain the users privacy by not sharing any more information about payments than is strictly necessary
  • Have an open framework that anyone can use and provide a payment processor for

Join the Conversation

  1. Interesting.
    But how to get all ad parties and paywalls to opt in?

    1. For paywalls, this kind of monetisation is basically a standard – and could be used as a means of authenticating if someone has completed a payment, so you let them in.

      For ad parties, well, they just won’t like this idea one bit.

  2. It’s a great idea – and better than having malware-infested ad-networks wasting your bandwidth (and also spying on you); however I have a few reservations (or problems to anticipate and overcome). Some of these may be non-issues; I only have a passing appreciation of the type of technology you’re describing.

    The first issue is that it will probably still get abused somehow by those who wish to track you – a bit like loopholes in the way browsers deal with etags or persistent storage being abused to track users. When companies are deceitful enough, they usually find a way. With decent implementations, hopefully this will not be practical (or even possible), though.

    The second is that the “big players” will want to get in on the act and become the revenue-processors of the internet – just like G becoming the gatekeeper of the internet, breaking more and more pages with their stupid Captcha and ReCaptcha systems. I envisage GAFAM all providing ready-made code-snippets that can be easily put on your web site, which would allow them to handle donations for you (optionally taking a modest payment-processing fee at the same time) – which would also allow them to track users across multiple sites. As long as the standard you propose is open, and it is possible to implement this with free (libre) software, the risks can be reduced.

    The third reservation I have, is the very assumption that web pages must be financially compensated for existing, and that’s the only business model of the internet. I am fortunate enough to have been surfing the web since virtually day zero. I remember when corporate web pages were little more than a static brochure for the company, because it was worthwhile just to have contact details advertised in one more place. I also remember when lots of ordinary people produced web pages about their lives, hobbies and personal interests, solely out of the love of the subjects they were writing about. Some massive (at the time) web resources for various topics existed solely because of the love of fans, hosted on the web space provided by their ISP (who they were already paying for an internet connection, anyway). Any online businesses (when they started to exist) initially made money from the products and services they were offering, and didn’t need additional funding from ads (ads originally just provided additional traffic). Ads weren’t a revenue stream – they were a means of getting links (and therefore traffic) to and from your site (“you put up a banner link for my site, and I’ll put up a banner link to yours, and we’ll each give the other more visitors”). I’m not saying that every site should be essentially just another cost to the business or entity that operates it, as I’m aware that some organisations don’t have a physical premises or tangible assets in the “real world” – I’m just saying that I think we’ve sleepwalked into a default state of assuming every site needs financial compensation for its existence, and we blindly accept this without questioning it for every site.

    My third reservation could actually be a strong argument for your suggested donation mechanism. If I read a newspaper, I pay for a paper copy of it. If I read a news web site, I could make a donation (assuming they don’t already have a paywall). The same would apply to Wikipedia, a forum or an e-mail service. This in fact already happens with the “donate…” pages/buttons/banners you see on some of these services. Importantly, I could avoid donating to the website of a retailer because they make money on the products they sell. Of course, this fairer distribution of revenue would only work if the advertising networks died the death they deserve sooner rather than later, and user-tracking and data-“monetising” became relics of an unenlightened past.

    1. These are good points. Regarding your 2nd issue – part of the idea behind standardising this is it should be easy to make a “drop-in” snippet. The good thing is that it will allow you to swap out for another payment provider if you prefer to without too much hassle.

      The point about tracking is a valid one.

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