Chrome engine developers are experimenting with automatic micropayments for viewing content

The Chromium development team, the open-source engine for Google Chrome and other browsers, has begun working on enabling Internet users to pay for what they read or watch without any interaction, reports The Register.

Earlier this month, Alexander Surkov, a software engineer at Igalia, announced the Chromium team’s intention to create a prototype of web monetization, a type of incubation community that will allow websites to automatically receive payments from visitors, not advertisers, through a browser and a special payment service.

“A startup incubator is a community of entrepreneurs, investors, and other professionals who work together to help new businesses grow and succeed. The incubator provides resources and support to its members, who are typically early stage startups. The definition is given by FasterCapital.

“Web monetization is a web technology that enables website owners to receive micro payments from users as they interact with their content,” Surkov wrote in an explanatory document published last summer.

It allows content creators and website owners to be rewarded for their work without relying solely on advertising or subscriptions. In particular, web monetization (WM) offers two unique features – small payments and no user interaction – that address several important scenarios that are currently not implemented on the Internet.

Small payments, or micropayments, have been developed and implemented in various forms and with varying degrees of success since the Internet emerged in the 1990s. And even earlier, they were considered as part of Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project.

Two decades ago, there was considerable skepticism that they would ever work. In 1999, cryptocurrency pioneer Nick Szabo argued that the mental cost of processing tiny transactions typically exceeds or dwarfs the cost of computing.

A few years later, in a 2003 article titled “The Case Against Micro Payments,” Andrew Odlizko, now a professor at the University of Minnesota’s Department of Mathematics, wrote: “Micropayments are the technology of the future, and always will be.”

Given the recent history of cryptocurrencies, decentralized finance, blockchains, digital wallets, in-app purchases, and major payment systems like PayPal, Stripe, Venmo, and Zelle, there is no shortage of attempts to prove otherwise. However, none of them can efficiently handle tiny transactions of a few cents.

In 2017, Brave Software launched its Basic Attention Token (BAT), which in 2019 became part of the Brave Rewards program to reward users for viewing ads. According to BuiltWith, 28,000 sites currently participate in the program.

Search startup Mojeek started offering web monetization support in 2021 via Coil, a blogging platform created in 2018 by former Ripple CTO Stefan Thomas. And it didn’t work, at least for Coil, which closed about a year ago.

However, in its farewell note, the startup passed the baton to the Interledger Foundation, which aims to enable web monetization using the Interledger protocol and the Open Payments API.

And how will it work?

“Open Payments API is an open HTTP-based standard created to facilitate micro transactions on the web,” Surkov wrote.

’It is implemented by a wallet and enables the transfer of funds between two wallets. It leverages fine-grained access grants, based on GNAP (Grant Negotiation and Authorization Protocol), which gives wallet owners precise control over the permissions granted to applications connected to their wallet,” Surkov wrote.

The basic idea is that users will receive a digital wallet, which is currently provided by Gatehub and Fynbos, and sites will add a link tag to the <head> of their site, formatting it in this way:

After that, site visitors who have linked their digital wallet to their browser will be paid by the publisher who invited them, subject to the browser’s permission policy.

According to Surkov, Apple and Google have demonstrated support for web monetization, while Mozilla has shown more limited interest. The implementation of the specification in Chromium – which will make it available to Chrome, Microsoft Edge, Brave, and other Chromium-based browsers – should ensure that the technology is sufficiently widespread for experimentation. Before this happens, prototyping still needs to be completed, and there is no set deadline date.

There are many obstacles to micropayments, such as security, scalability, reliability, and transaction costs – not to mention the psychological burden of assessing the fairness of a price paid in pennies.

Micropayments are still a technology of the future, but that future may be closer than it seems. Research company Forrester predicts that in 2024, “Micropayments will break out of their niche and become an alternative to subscriptions.”