Don’t like online ads? The media company Salon is offering an alternative. It’s been asking select readers to run a cryptocurrency miner over their computers.
On Sunday, Salon.com began offering the option to help fund the company’s operations. The miner —which requires an opt-in— will run over your internet browser, and siphon away your PC’s excess computing power to generate a virtual currency called Monero.
However, the mining isn’t meant to be a cash cow for the company. It’s a test designed to address a select group of readers: those who’ve chosen to run an ad blocker in their browser.
Upon visiting Salon.com, these visitors will be given two options: either allow the ads to run or let the company harvest your “unused computing power.” Otherwise, all access to the free site will be blocked.
The goal behind the change is to fight the rise of ad blockers, which Salon’s CEO Jordan Hoffner said have been eating into the company’s revenues. His hope is to squeeze some return from readers once locked away behind the ad stopping technology.
“I can’t just sit here and wait for someone else to come up with a solution,” Hoffner told PCMag. “We’ve had to take actions ourselves.”
Salon is a rare instance of a mainstream website —without a shady reputation— deciding to adopt browser-based cryptocurrency mining. Last September, The Pirate Bay, a destination known for bootlegging content, also incorporated the mining as a way to generate revenue from visitors.
Another group that’s been a fan of the mining: hackers. For months now, cybercriminals have been tampering with websites, and sliding in code that’ll do the same as Salon.com will: run a cryptocurrency miner over your browser. All that computing power is siphoned away to generate Monero, which is now worth around $240 a coin —up from a mere $12 a year ago.
What separates Salon from the hackers is how the media company goes about the whole process: it doesn’t keep the mining secret. The site explicitly gives you a choice to opt-in. Once you close the browser window or visit another site, the mining stops.
“I wouldn’t put something out there that would hurt other people’s computers,” Hoffner said.
Nevertheless, the mining does come with a cost. Salon readers who participate in the mining will notice it hogging their computer’s PC resources, which can drain the machine’s performance and suck away at its battery life. But in exchange, Salon readers will get free content from the site, and no ads either.
Salon’s CEO said the mining was worth exploring, even as it isn’t clear how much it can generate for the company. But not everyone is bullish on the venture.
Part of the problem is the way the mining will occur. Readers who opt-in may only visit the site for a few minutes in a single day, meaning Salon’s access to their computing power will be short. Troy Mursch, an independent security researcher, estimated that Salon’s news site might only generate $425 worth of Monero a month — assuming every visitor participated in the mining.
“If it was only some people opting in, then even less,” Mursch said. “Not that I’m rooting against them, but I feel it’ll be a failed monetization experiment.”
To mine the cryptocurrency, Salon is also relying on a third-party service called Coinhive, which has gained an infamous reputation in the IT security community. Since Sept, Coinhive has been offering a cryptocurrency miner that anyone can register and use. As a result, hackers have been employing the service too.
In response, Coinhive has said its been cracking down on bad actors. It also has many legitimate customers. These include owners of porn websites, internet forums and small community sites that have trouble monetizing their services, Coinhive said in an email.
All that Monero mining has proven to be quite lucrative. On Tuesday, Coinhive said it’s managed to mine the equivalent of a few million in US dollars, 30 percent of which it will take a cut.
Time will tell how much Salon can generate from the new project. But its CEO said that his company is striving to pioneer new business models and technologies. Leveraging readers’ excess computing power for important causes certainly shows potential, Hoffner added.
“We are excited about this. I think we can create a new dynamic potentially,” he said.