Salon mines in readers’ browsers — usual false claims in FAQ about “unused computing power”


It’s this time — if you go with an ad blocker, you get this notice, giving you the option to switch off your ad-blocker, or waste your electricity mining Monero.

Just two months ago, Salon published “Bitcoin could cost us our clean energy future” — and you don’t need to click on that link to read it, there’s a copy at Grist. But here’s what Salon was saying two months ago:

Simply put, bitcoin is slowing the effort to achieve a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. What’s more, this is just the beginning. Given its rapidly growing climate footprint, bitcoin is a malignant development, and it’s getting worse.

… Humanity is decades behind schedule on counteracting climate change, and every action in this era should be evaluated on its net impact on the climate. Increasingly, bitcoin is failing the test.

I suppose this demonstrates clear walls between editorial and advertising.

Why block ads? Basic security

Online advertising is too likely to carry malicious software, so using an ad-blocker is basic computer security in 2018.

Mainstream news sites that have served their readers malware through advertising include … Salon! They were one of several sites hit very badly by malware ads in 2013.

Here’s Salon developer Aram Zucker-Scharff talking about the horrible garbage that ad sites were still sending them as of 2016:

There is very little that can be done when users start reporting getting hit by a bad advertisement. There’s no way for a developer to go on to a page and see all the ads that have been served, or to block a bad ad they spot in one click. And when a malicious ad gets past the loose controls on a network, it can hit many, many publishers.

Usually ad servers claim they run some sort of checks, but considering just how many malicious or badly formed ads get through, it is pretty apparent they don’t do much.

Devs hate dealing with it because all the code is awful and you aren’t allowed to change it anyway.

What’s bad for readers is bad for publishers, because then they stop reading.

Salon’s totally altruistic Monero mining

Salon have a FAQ, which repeatedly makes the standard false claims about “unused computing” — Bail Bloc and UNICEF both tried the same line.

I won’t run through the whole thing, but bits are particularly worth quoting:

Like most media companies, Salon pays its bills through advertising and we profoundly appreciate our advertising partners and sponsors. In this traditional arrangement between reader and publisher, we are able to offer our readers a free reading experience in exchange for serving them ads. This relationship — of free or subsidized content in exchange for advertising — is not new; journalism has subsisted on this relationship for well over a century. This quid pro quo arrangement, ideally, benefits both readers and media. Yet in the past two decades, shifting tides in the media and advertising industries threw a wrench in this equation.

Reading ads for content is one thing. Exposing ourselves to invasion of privacy, perpetual tracking and getting our computers attacked by your website is quite a breach of the deal you’re claiming — and it wasn’t the readers who broke the deal. You threw the wrench in.

The demand for computing power across many different industries and applications is potentially very high. We intend to use a small percentage of your spare processing power to contribute to the advancement of technological discovery, evolution and innovation.

i.e., running CoinHive. I’d like to closely question whoever wrote this FAQ about the “innovation” involved in linking coinhive.js.



For our beta program, we’ll start by applying your processing power to help support the evolution and growth of blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies.

There is no “spare processing power!” You don’t have a pool of computation sitting around, that will be wasted if you don’t use it up. Any CPU made in the last fifteen years goes into low-power mode as often as it can.

“Bitcoin is a malignant development, and it’s getting worse” — Salon, December 2017.

In any case, the possibilities for this sort of technology are limitless: Your spare computing power may go to solving the kinds of complex math problems that form the integrity of blockchains, but it can also be used for humanitarian and scientific projects such as helping research how proteins fold, to aid in biological discovery or helping pay for misdemeanor prisoners’ bail, or to see if we can better predict the impact of climate change.

You read that correctly — Salon just made out that wasting power mining cryptocurrency had any link at all to something that would help against climate change, not make it worse.

Your spare computing power can even help analyze astronomical signals to figure out if extraterrestrials are trying to contact us. Some scholars have proposed using spare computing power to help secure voting and verify the integrity of democratic elections.

The utter lack of specifics here is very blockchain.

Note that they’re not doing any of these good things, at all — they’re just turning coal into Monero. Which is, to be fair, the crypto with an actual use case as a currency! That is, darknet drug markets.

Claiming, or even trying to imply, that they’re doing any of these other things is an attempt at deception.

Do I have other options?


1. Turn off your ad blocker

2. Download our new ad free tablet, mobile and streaming paid app on iTunes, Google Play and Amazon Fire (coming soon!) Subscribe to our newsletter and we will notify you the day it comes out.

3. Don’t read Salon — they appear to have hit the bottom of the barrel and are trying to mine through it.

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.

Think of it like burning coal to make up for the malware-infested ads you won’t let them run on your computer any more.

Why are my fans turning on?

You know why:



But whatever will publishers do without ads?

Work out a business model, probably.

The advertising industry has broken any implied social contract good and hard. They’ve proven over and over they can’t be trusted. There is zero reason to assume good faith in online advertising.

Salon shows there’s zero reason to assume good faith in anyone pushing crypto mining as a substitute.

Crypto fans try to push Brendan Eich’s web browser Brave, which is a reskinned Chrome which claims it will eventually pay publishers using an ERC-20 token, the Basic Attention Token. You buy some of these and they get distributed to sites you browse. It’s not clear how this idea will gain popularity — or if it even can, given Ethereum is filling fast.

While it’s unfortunate that Salon has decided to turn its brand and twenty-year archive into a dumpster fire, this doesn’t mean that anyone else somehow has a moral obligation to run malware-infested advertising or crypto miners.

It’s turning out that good news sites do attract a bit of money — direct subscription works surprisingly well. It’s on track to save The Guardian’s backside, for instance. Note how I use the subscription model for the site you’re reading. (Do I bring you $5 of enjoyment a month? Sign up!)

The real threat to quality public journalism in 2018 is the billionaire problem — wealthy people who don’t like a site buying it to shut it down. Which has already happened in crypto — Butterfly Labs bought specifically to remove the article “The $22,484.00 Butterfly Labs Mini Rig bitcoin miner is a huge, broken, unstable piece of s—t.”

They replaced the review with “The $22,484.00 Butterfly Labs Mini Rig bitcoin miner is a sexy bitcoin mining machine.” They forgot to replace the original comments, though.



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4 Comments on “Salon mines in readers’ browsers — usual false claims in FAQ about “unused computing power””

  1. The problems of advertisement comes down to (“simply”) vetting what you put on your website. This can happen at any layer of the process but sooner or later, someone’s gonna have to sit down and look at what the ad does and tick a little box that says “approved” in order for an ad to be sent to a user’s browser. The time when the “others” can be trusted to send code to run on a user’s computer is over. Has been for a while, but it’s been easier for advertisers, ad network operators, website owners, site designers, and others, to just throw up their hands and say “this is the only way we can do this”, but that’s just not true. For literally hundreds of years prior, advertisements had to be approved, someone somewhere looked at them and said “yes, this is okay for publication on our medium.” This takes humans looking at stuff and the ability to lock out ad buyers from the content portion without re-review, which means it’s going to cost someone some fucking money, but if the option is “no advertisements”, well, there you go…

  2. I saw about this on a friend’s twitter feed and was immediately like “I should aware David of this — wait, no, I should check to see whether he’s already written about it, and if he hasn’t, then I should aware him.” As usual, you manage to be much more reasoned and articulate than I can in the face of such emboldened stupidity.

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