Claiming that ad-blockers have cut deeply into its revenue, the media company Salon is asking some readers to bolster its bottom line — by helping the site generate cryptocurrency.
The move, launched Sunday, makes Salon one of the first major online publishers to adopt virtual currencies as an alternative revenue stream and highlights the ongoing difficulty that many news sites face in an era of declining ad income. In an interview, Salon chief executive Jordan Hoffner said that early data suggests some users are choosing to support the alternative funding model.
“If it’s a new thing, we want to be there first and make our mark,” Hoffner said. “We are a small company in tune with innovation.”
Visitors to Salon.com who have an ad-blocker enabled now see a pop-up asking them to donate their spare computing power to generating monero, a cryptocurrency known for its privacy-protecting properties.
Readers who opt into the plan must then permit a third-party program called Coinhive to run in the background of their Web browser.
The technology is designed to consume a reader’s unused processor power to help perform the decryption needed to create new monero coins, which are currently worth about $233 each. If enough readers participate in the program, Salon reasons, it could lead to meaningful revenue.
“We realize that specific technological developments now mean that it is not merely the reader’s eyeballs that have value to our site — it’s also your computer’s ability to make calculations, too,” Salon says in an FAQ posted to its site. “Indeed, your computer itself can help support our ability to pay our editors and journalists.”
Salon’s embrace of Coinhive comes at a sensitive moment. The software has increasingly been linked to malicious activity, in which hackers force a website to run Coinhive’s otherwise legitimate code and, in turn, recruit unwitting visitors to the site into mining monero without their consent. Major U.K. and U.S. government websites have been hit by this attack in recent days, in a high-profile example of what experts call “cryptojacking.” In October, the fact-checking site PolitiFact was also the victim of a cryptojacking attack powered by Coinhive’s software.
The creators of Coinhive have said that they did not anticipate their software being misused in illegitimate cryptocurrency schemes and that the money generated by the attack on the government websites — all of $24 — has not been paid out to those responsible. They told Motherboard that the entire Coinhive project has yielded “a few million USD in total.”
The legitimate use of Coinhive could open a broader discussion about the economics of online content, some analysts say.
Actually my initial reaction to this was also ‘NO’ (I helped on this investigation: https://t.co/TA72udcX8v )
However, I’ve had a change of heart and starting to think that paying for content with my excess CPU is better than paying with my limited attention.
— ashkan soltani (@ashk4n) February 13, 2018
Whereas online ads can be obtrusive and distracting, allowing websites to turn excess computing power into money could be a low-profile alternative.
“[Coinhive] is a white-label solution,” said Hoffner, arguing that many fringe technologies often begin with illicit connotations but gradually become mainstream. “You have to take a historical perspective when a disruptive technology comes to market.”
Should more websites shift to this business model, it could have outside consequences, such as greater energy consumption. But, Salon said in its FAQ, putting the world’s excess computing power to use could also have its benefits.
“Some scholars,” the site said, “have proposed using spare computing power to help secure voting and verify the integrity of democratic elections.”