Salon gives readers a choice between unblocking ads or letting their site use your computer to “mine cryptocurrency”

If you go to Salon (I rarely do, and I’m not doing it any more), you get a choice of two options if you want to read anything:

I use ad blocker, as I find ads truly annoying (I even pay to keep them off this site). Yes, I know that those ads help pay for Salon‘s writers, but if they don’t want you to use ad-blocking, they’re perfectly capable of preventing you from seeing the site. And the site isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit anyway. The writing is dire, propagandistic, and, to my mind, not worth my $$.

But if you want to “block ads by allowing Salon to use your unused computing power”, that power will be used, as the Financial Times reports, to engage in something that sounds dubious, and I won’t engage in:

That is the idea behind a programme that left-leaning US media group Salon began testing on Monday, according to a spokesperson.

“For our beta program, we’ll start by applying your processing power to help support the evolution and growth of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies,” it says, opening up an intriguing new potential revenue stream for media companies.

Users wishing to avoid pop-up ads are presented with a new pop-up, which indicates the website would “like to use your computing power”. The website will use your processor “for calculations”, it says, claiming the program will be run “securely” without the need to install any additional software.

The pop-up seen by fastFT says the scheme is powered by Coinhive, which has developed a program that runs in users’ web browsers, allowing companies to mine monero — a cryptocurrency similar to the more well-known bitcoin. The required number-crunching miner can be embedded “directly into [their] website”.

Salon’s explanation is this:

What is Salon doing with my computer if I decide to opt-in?

Salon is instructing your processor to run calculations. Think of it like borrowing your calculator for a few minutes to figure out the answer to math problems, then giving it back when you leave the site. We automatically detect your current processing usage and assign a portion of what you are not using to this process. Should you begin a process that requires more of your computer’s resources, we automatically reduce the amount we are using for calculations.

Perhaps some readers know about this “mining”, but I’m not about to let anybody else use my computer’s power. Nor do I want to see ads. I thus opt for the third alternative: stop reading Salon. They could allow you a limited number of articles per month, like the New York Times, or make some of their articles free, like The New Yorker, but that isn’t happening. Given how lame the site is—famous, for one thing, for attacking New Atheists on dubious grounds—I’m just going to stop reading it.

In one sense I’m glad this is happening, for they wouldn’t be doing this if Salon wasn’t in financial trouble. And they admit it:

Back in the 1990s, as now, Salon offered the common relationship of serving ads to its users in exchange for keeping most of our content free. The principle behind this is that your readership has value both to us and to our advertisers. Recently, with the increasing popularity of ad-blocking technology, there is even more of a disintegration of this already-tenuous relationship; like most media sites, ad-blockers cut deeply into our revenue and create a more one-sided relationship between reader and publisher.

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. Indeed, your computer itself can help support our ability to pay our editors and journalists.

I’m outa there, and I won’t shed a tear if the site goes away.

h/t: Cindy

55 Comments

  1. harrync
    Posted February 13, 2018 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    When I signed up for AdBlockPlus, they said they were not against ads, just obnoxious ads. Salon could have gotten unblocked on my computer anytime they wanted by agreeing to follow AdBlock’s rather reasonable rules. Of course, I am sure the obnoxious ones are the ads that pay the best. Or maybe Google makes it impossible to only have non-obnoxious ads. Anyway, I dumped Salon a while back, so there is nothing there for me to miss. {When I use an unblocked computer and an obnoxious ad pops up, I occasionally think “Would you buy a magazine if every time you turned the page, an animated ad with a blaring jingle suddenly started playing?”}

  2. glen1davidson
    Posted February 13, 2018 at 11:49 am | Permalink

    But Salon might disappear if we don’t give it processing power.

    Thanks for more incentive to say “no,” Salon.

    Glen Davidson

  3. Posted February 13, 2018 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    This is interesting to me, a lifelong computer guy. A few things come to mind.

    Nothing stops any program or website running code on your computer from calculating things other than what you think it does, as long as it doesn’t try to break out of the security “sandbox” it runs in. In particular, any website you visit could, say, compute digits of pi and send them back to the web server where its owner can do whatever it wants.

    Salon is simply using more your free computer cycles than it otherwise would. If it is carefully designed, it can probable do this without slowing anything else down. Most computers have lots of idle time. Such use would increase power consumption which will drain the battery on your phone or laptop.

    I don’t think Salon’s deal is so bad. Many website provide free use in exchange for personal information which they use for their own marketing purposes. Stealing a few of your spare cycles in exchange for their work sounds like a better deal in my opinion.

    • Posted February 13, 2018 at 11:56 am | Permalink

      Could you explain what the “mining” actually does? Why does cryptocurrency have to “mined” in this way?

      Sorry if that seems naive. Sometimes (hell, often) the world just zips past me and I find myself having to ask questions everyone else knows the answer to.

      • Posted February 13, 2018 at 12:07 pm | Permalink

        Hello – Hopefully I can explain this a little bit for Prof Coyne’s readers. Crypto-currency is very much in the news this last year as its value has skyrocketed (and recently corrected) Basically, the currency has a finite amount of units – those units are given away as rewards to those that can solve certain complex mathematical puzzles. Each new coin is added to the chain of coins called the blockchain. These puzzles require huge amounts of computational power. When a puzzle is solved, the solver is given crypto coins which are added to the blockchain. Web servers try to gather huge armies of personal computers (botnets) to use the distributed power of the CPU and GPU (graphics chips)- hence Salon’s extra sketchy endeavor here. Your machine is essentially being hijacked-stay away, stay far away

        • Posted February 13, 2018 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          Salon is being upfront about this “hijacking”. I don’t really see why this should be so scary. Every consumer can make a decision to take the deal or not. You could also take the deal for a while and, if it slows your computer or drains your battery too much, you can presumably stop. Since they aren’t asking you to install software on your computer (I assume), they can only do the mining when a Salon web page is open in your browser. This gives the user complete control.

        • Jonathan Dore
          Posted February 13, 2018 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

          Thanks Matt. What puzzles me is: to whom is the solution of these mathematical puzzles valuable? How does their computation create value that can be monetized? Users are “given” coin in return for computation, but where does the wealth come from that is being transferred when this “giving” takes place? Where does the giver get it in the first place, to be able to pass it on?

          • Posted February 13, 2018 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

            Keep in mind that any currency is ultimately valueless unless we agree otherwise.

            • Posted February 13, 2018 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

              Cryptocurrency reminds me of the 1963 science fiction short story “The Big Pat Boom” by Damon Knight, where aliens come to Earth and buy cowpats at exorbitant prices, ultimately destroying our economy.

          • Posted February 13, 2018 at 12:26 pm | Permalink

            Cryptocurrency is an interesting sociological phenomenon. Bitcoins have no intrinsic value as there is no guarantee they can be traded for anything. The value is only in the minds of people who own and use them. However, since US dollars are no longer backed by gold, the same is true for them.

          • Michael Fisher
            Posted February 13, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

            The value in these coins is as a unit of exchange for goods or services. These coins can’t be counterfeited so when you get paid for babysitting or whatever you know the coin is real. It is no different than the use of a rare metal as a coin – it would be stupid to use leaves or grass as currency! Paper money can be devalued by governments printing more – not possible with cryptocurrency

            The buying power of a coin is dependent on the coin marketplace, which largely depends on confidence – just in the same way as all currencies.

            These virtual coins are believed by many to be anonymous & untraceable, but this is untrue AFAIK.

            • Posted February 13, 2018 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

              I agree with most of what you said here but your example of using a rare metal as currency is poorly chosen. A rare metal has an intrinsic value.

              It is also possible for a cryptocurrency to “print” more money. Bitcoin promises a fixed number of bitcoins will ever exist but that is not a technical limitation. They might decide to up that number. Of course, it would devalue all existing bitcoins and their is some question as to who “they” refers to. I have no idea how Bitcoin is managed from the human perspective.

              • d3zd3z
                Posted February 13, 2018 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

                > I have no idea how Bitcoin is managed from the human perspective.

                Similar to how the rest of it works, consensus. In order to change how bitcoins work (and the number of coins issued is part of that), the software running it has to change. In order to make that change, a majority of people running it have to agree to the change. In general, this means things like this don’t change.

                There have been a few changes that were made, sometimes reaching consensus, and sometimes not. Some have resulted in effectively a new cryptocurrency being created (bitcoin cash as an example).

                The goal at least is to remove these decisions from the hands of humans, and encoding them into the math behind the system.

          • darrelle
            Posted February 13, 2018 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

            I think what Matt is asking is what people or organizations value the solving of the mathematical puzzles that require the massive computations that this is all based on. In other words, who is the end-customer that is “paying” for the computation services?

            I’m smelling foul play. Whether that was the original intent or whether crooks are taking advantage I can’t say. But building massive server farms in remote locales like outer Mongolia for the soul purpose of mining crypto-currency sounds fishy to me. Sounds a lot like the derivatives market scam of creating a mountain of Fake value and taking as much actual profit from it as you can before the mountain crumbles back into the nothingness it actually consists of.

            • Posted February 13, 2018 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

              I also do not believe in schemes to obtain something from nothing. And these virtual currencies seem to me even more surreal than mortgage-based securities.

            • Posted February 15, 2018 at 11:25 am | Permalink

              The crooks *are* involved. There are programs that are basically “trojan horses” in the old sense: they are advertised as something else and they include a cryptocurrency miner of one sort or another.

              There are also exploits to existing software to hijack computational resources to do the same.

          • Laurance
            Posted February 13, 2018 at 9:25 pm | Permalink

            I don’t have a clue about bitcoins and this crypto-currency.

            But where does the wealth come from? Bitcoins, don’t ask me. What can you buy?

            But a barter system, that’s something else.

            From 1984 to 2000 I lived in Newfield NY, a village several miles south of Ithaca NY. In the 1990’s I got involved in Ithaca Hours, which is a barter system involving script money.

            http://www.ithacahours.com/

            https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ithaca_Hours

            The wealth came from the goods and services we could exchange.

            The service I offered was me and my pickup truck. Everybody Needs A Friend With A Truck. You gotta get a bunch of stuff out of that third floor apartment and get it over across town? I’d show up with my truck and as much lifting power as I could offer, and together we’d get that stuff moved. I’ve hauled more mattresses out more of third floor apartments…why the hell did they stop putting handles on the sides of mattresses??? (At least they stopped in the 1990’s. Maybe mattress manufacturers will recognize their mistake and bring back handles on mattresses.)

            (Wildwoman Trucking Service, oh, there’s a memory! And that gorgeous truck with the bumperstickers on the tailgate, now there was a truck!!)

            It’s bartering, but because there’s script involved you don’t have to have a service or good that I need to trade with me in order to hire me. You pay me with a bill which I can exchange with someone else who does have something I do want.

            Goods and services are the wealth. But what do bitcoins buy? I have no idea. Can you get real goods and real services? Can I pay you with a bitcoin if you come over with your truck and help me haul my junk elsewhere? (The Mighty Wildwoman Truck is long gone, and now I’m old, so I’ll have to hire you instead of you hiring me.) Can I buy your handmade jewelry? Can I get a massage?

            Isn’t this why we invented money? We can trade with people who are offering things we don’t need or want. We get script which we can exchange with people who have what we do need.

        • Posted February 13, 2018 at 12:37 pm | Permalink

          Thanks. That’s helpful.

          • Craw
            Posted February 13, 2018 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

            3Blue1Brown is a guy on YouTube who does excellent math tutorials on advanced topics and he has several videos on block chain and coin mining. Very highly recommended.

            • Posted February 13, 2018 at 1:37 pm | Permalink

              Now THAT made it clear. I get the mining now. Many thanks.

      • Posted February 13, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

        I don’t know the details but my understanding is that it computes numbers that are practically impossible for other computers to come up with. The prime example of this (pun intended) is multiplying two huge prime numbers together to give another even larger number. That larger number can be used to encrypt data securely. Someone can only decrypt that data if they know the two numbers that were multiplied. The known algorithms for figuring out those two numbers would take so long that it is effectively secure.

        This kind of thing can be put to uses other than encryption. This is what blockchain technology, on which cryptocurrency is based, is all about. Blockchain is a sort of universal accountants’ ledger. Once an entry is made in the ledger, no one can mess with it. Cryptocurrency “mining” is the calculation of what to put in the currency’s ledger, thereby making new “coins”.

  4. Posted February 13, 2018 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    There are online representation of newspapers and magazines. Their ads should be static like in a newspaper or magazine. Instead, they are pop-ups, animated, or videos — which always auto-play.

    I can’t handle the distracting audio-visual stimulation while trying to read. If they stuck to ‘print’ style ads, I wouldn’t ad block. So I, too, just stop reading any site that won’t allow adblocking.

  5. Michael Fisher
    Posted February 13, 2018 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    HOW TO BLOCK COIN MINING IN YOUR BROWSER using Adblock Plus

    • Posted February 13, 2018 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

      Interesting and inevitable. I doubt Adblock can really detect mining directly. They probably just maintain a list of websites that are known to be engaging in this kind of mining. This is obviously a moving target so there can be no guarantees.

      • Posted February 15, 2018 at 11:27 am | Permalink

        They can’t detect all and only ads of a conventional sort either. (I haven’t looked to see if AdBlock and so on are heuristic and hence have both false positives and negatives or whether they are simply a blacklist, and hence effectively only false negative prone.)

  6. improbable
    Posted February 13, 2018 at 12:43 pm | Permalink

    Salon.com also seems to work just fine without Javascript at all.

    Turning it does break some websites, for instance you can only use an extremely basic version of gmail. But I increasingly think no javascript should be the default option.

    • BJ
      Posted February 13, 2018 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

      Yes, I use ScriptSafe. If a website (like one that plays videos) won’t work, I allow only the required scripts to run and block all others. Of course, this isn’t really all that useful to most people who don’t understand the basics, unless they only go to sites like Salon.

  7. Diana MacPherson
    Posted February 13, 2018 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    Maybe if ads weren’t so distracting to the content, people wouldn’t block them. I am getting particularly irritated with sites that are so full of ads, you can’t even tell what the content is from the ad and it takes forever for a bunch of ads to download. I quickly close those sites and don’t bother. The other ones are those ads that pop up in front of you and have tiny X’s so you take way too much time trying to close the ad. I’m not interested in the content on those sites either.

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted February 13, 2018 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

      Exactly my feeling/experience.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 13, 2018 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      I hate the kind of ads that expand from between paragraphs causing everything on the page to move to a new configuration thus whisking the sentence you were reading right out from under your eyes, persist for 30 seconds or so, about long enough for you to scroll around and find the sentence you were reading, then collapse back, thus whisking the sentence right out from under your eyes yet again.

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted February 13, 2018 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        I always imagine user acceptance testing for things like online ads going something like this:

        “Yeah, but is it annoying enough?

        • darrelle
          Posted February 13, 2018 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

          *laughing*

        • BJ
          Posted February 13, 2018 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

          “It’s the only way we’ll get noticed!”

    • BJ
      Posted February 13, 2018 at 6:16 pm | Permalink

      Go to your extensions (under “More Tools” in your Chrome browser menu, or “Extensions” in Microsoft Edge) and search for AdBlock+. Install and it will do the rest for you. Never be bothered by such ads again 🙂

  8. ploubere
    Posted February 13, 2018 at 2:24 pm | Permalink

    I was annoyed when autoplay video became the norm a couple years ago, but I understand the motivation. Online ads produce very little revenue compared to print ads. For a couple decades online sites kept hoping that the numbers would improve with more traffic, but that didn’t happen. So they’re desperately searching for limit that users are willing to put up with. It’s no different than TV commercials—how many are you willing to put up with before you switch channels?

  9. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 13, 2018 at 2:32 pm | Permalink

    And the site isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit anyway.

    Nice to see John Nance Garner’s vivid trope getting a little play (even if in its common bowdlerized iteration).

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 13, 2018 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    While Salonis “mining” your computer, will they have access to your porn stash?

    Asking for a friend.

    • Posted February 13, 2018 at 2:45 pm | Permalink

      Only if Salon IS your porn stash! If so, you have bigger issues. 😉

  11. Posted February 13, 2018 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

    They can have my blockchain when they pry it from my cold, dead hand!

  12. Jake Sevins
    Posted February 13, 2018 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    My PhD is in cryptography and I’ve played with cryptocurrencies since Bitcoin first emerged about 7 years ago. Happily, I bought a few coins for a handful of dollars just to use as homework in a class, and now they’re worth tens of thousands.

    In any case, there is no real risk of being hacked by volunteering your computer for mining. However, it’s not free to you: normally your computer throttles down its clock when you’re not doing heavy computation, and that means you use less power. If you engage in mining, you will draw far more electricity and your fans will start running to cool your CPU. This means a somewhat higher power bill and perhaps a fan that dies a lot earlier than it normally would.

    The main cost in bitcoin mining is the cost of electricity. That’s why it’s popular in places with cheap electricity (e.g., eastern Washington). What Salon is proposing is that you give them free electricity and you pay for it in place of ad revenue.

    • BJ
      Posted February 13, 2018 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

      So, a site like Salon isn’t generating revenue by your mere presence, it is now extracting actual money from you and putting it in their own pockets. Neat!

      • ploubere
        Posted February 13, 2018 at 6:51 pm | Permalink

        Well, it is a media business, which in the past would have extracted money from you in the form of subscriptions. Since they can’t do that anymore, they do need a different revenue source. An interesting experiment, we’ll see if it works.

        • BJ
          Posted February 13, 2018 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

          A fair point, but this seems different. Technically, a person is consenting when they see that message pop up and then continue to use the site with an ad-blocker, but I question how many people have any understanding of what it means. It seems different from the idea of “I pay the content provider and then I get access to the content.”

          • Posted February 13, 2018 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

            I really don’t understand the fuss here. It is completely safe, uses only fractions of pennies worth of electricity while you are reading. Did you really think about how much you are paying for electricity to use your computer or phone? If you were to think about it, you might avoid doing anything on your computer. As it is, you probably leave it on most of the day which will use more electricity than Salon will by far. Seems way better than seeing ads, regardless of whether they are obnoxious or not. Perhaps they just need to do a little better job of explaining it.

            • BJ
              Posted February 14, 2018 at 10:42 am | Permalink

              It’s really just a matter of principle. I don’t think most people understand what they’re proposing, which makes it an issue regardless of the safety or lack of cost to them. I buy my phone service with my own money. But you are right from a utilitarian perspective. I really can’t argue with you beyond saying that it feels icky to me, which isn’t an argument at all.

              • Posted February 14, 2018 at 10:51 am | Permalink

                From a practical point of view, they have failed if a large proportion of their readers find Salon’s proposed bargain “icky” or simply don’t understand it. I’m going to forward this thread to them and see what they make of it.

      • Posted February 14, 2018 at 7:34 am | Permalink

        You realise that is how all commercial operations work?

        • BJ
          Posted February 14, 2018 at 10:44 am | Permalink

          Yes, but you usually hand over money, or allow it to be taken from you through an agreement not like this one. I think this is slightly different, but I agree that it’s really not different enough that it’s somehow unethical. I can’t make an argument beyond the fact that it just feels wrong to me, and I realize that’s not an argument. You are right.

          • Posted February 14, 2018 at 11:10 am | Permalink

            It asks you up front to hand over your money and you have the option not to enter the site.

            I admit that it feels wrong to me too, but it might be just an inbuilt prejudice I have against running CPU intensive code on my computer and cryptocurrencies generally.

  13. Chris Swart
    Posted February 13, 2018 at 7:29 pm | Permalink

    I’ve let them use me twice, but given this opinion I’m out too. All their best articles and writers come from somewhere else anyway.

  14. Hemidactylus
    Posted February 13, 2018 at 10:04 pm | Permalink

    Wow. Thanks for pointing this out Jerry. And I admire that your blog is well behaved unlike others on other platforms that have, before I used Adblock browser, redirected me to the appstore on my phone. Very obnoxious. I understand use of ads for site and personal revenue streams (especially for starving bloggers) but the ad networks themselves can introduce third party maliciousness.

  15. Posted February 14, 2018 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I always used to eschew the use of ad blockers on the grounds that the owners of the web sites I visit have to feed themselves so it’s only fair to pay them as bit of money.

    However there is one site (which shall remain anonymous, let’s just call it thoughtfreeblogs.com) which had really obnoxious ads on it in terms of pop ups and stuff, so I tried adblock plus and was surprised to find that it instantly made thoughtfreeblogs.com useable.

    Not only that, most of the rest of the Internet suddenly became a more pleasant experience. Pages would load faster and were more easily navigable once loaded. When using my mobile phone connection, my data cap lasted much longer. I only turn off ad blocking very reluctantly now. It’s turned off for this site, for instance just in case JAC does need to make money from advertising.

  16. Posted February 15, 2018 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    In a way this returns us to barter – one’s offering computational resources in exchange for articles and so on.


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