Who makes money when AI reads the internet for us?


Last week, The Browser Company, a startup that makes the Arc web browser, released a slick new iPhone app called Arc Search. Instead of displaying links, its brand new “Browse for Me” feature reads the first handful of pages and summarizes them into a single, custom-built, Arc-formatted web page using large language models from OpenAI and others. If a user does click through to any of the actual pages, Arc Search blocks ads, cookies and trackers by default. Arc’s efforts to reimagine web browsing have received near-universal acclaim. But over the last few days, “Browse for Me” earned The Browser Company its first online backlash.

For decades, websites have served ads and pushed people visiting them towards paying for subscriptions. Monetizing traffic is one of the primary ways most creators on the web continue to make a living. Reducing the need for people to visit actual websites deprives those creators of compensation for their work, and disincentivizes them from publishing anything at all.

“Web creators are trying to share their knowledge and get supported while doing so”, tweeted Ben Goodger, a software engineer who helped create both Firefox and Chrome. “I get how this helps users. How does it help creators? Without them there is no web…” After all, if a web browser sucked out all information from web pages without users needing to actually visit them, why would anyone bother making websites in the first place?

The backlash has prompted the company’s co-founder and CEO Josh Miller to question the fundamental nature of how the web is monetized. Miller, who was previously a product director at the White House and worked at Facebook after it acquired his previous startup, Branch, told Goodger on X that how creators monetize web pages needs to evolve. He also told Platformer’s Casey Newton that generative AI presents an opportunity to “shake up the stagnant oligopoly that runs much of the web today” but admitted that he didn’t know how writers and creators who made the actual website that his browser scrapes from would be compensated. “It completely upends the economics of publishing on the internet,” he admitted.

Miller declined to speak to JP, and The Browser Company did not respond to JP’s questions.

Arc set itself apart from other web browsers by fundamentally rethinking how web browsers look and work ever since it was released to the general public in July last year. It did this by adding features like the ability to split multiple tabs vertically and offering a picture-in-picture mode for Google Meet video conferences. But for the last few months, Arc has been rapidly adding AI-powered features such as automatic web page summaries, ChatGPT integration and giving users the option to switch their default search engine to Perplexity, a Google rival that uses AI to provide answers to search queries by summarizing web pages in a chat-style interface and providing tiny citations to sources. The “Browse for Me” feature lands Arc smack in the middle of one of AI’s biggest ethical quandaries: who pays creators when AI products rip off and repurpose their content?

“The best thing about the internet is that somebody super passionate about something makes a website about the thing that they love,” tech entrepreneur and blogging pioneer Anil Dash told JP. “This new feature from Arc intermediates that and diminishes that.” In a post on Threads shortly after Arc released the app, Dash criticized modern search engines and AI chatbots that sucked up the internet’s content and aimed to stop people from visiting websites, calling them “deeply destructive.”

It’s easy, Dash said, to blame the pop-ups, cookies and intrusive advertisements that power the economic engine of the modern web as the reason why browsing feels broken now. And there may be signs that users are warming to the concept of having their information presented to them summarized by large language models rather than manually clicking around multiple web pages. On Thursday, Miller tweeted that people chose “Browse for Me” over regular Google search in Arc Search on mobile for approximately 32 percent of all queries. The company is currently working on making that the default search experience and also bringing it to its desktop browser.

“It’s not intellectually honest to say that this is better for users,” said Dash. “We only focus on short term user benefit and not the idea that users want to be fully informed about the impact they’re having on the entire digital ecosystem by doing this.” Summarizing this double-edged sword succinctly a food blogger tweeted at Miller, “As a consumer, this is awesome. As a blogger, I’m a lil afraid.”

Last week, Matt Karolian, the vice president of platforms, research and development at The Boston Globe typed “top Boston news” into Arc Search and hit “Browse for Me”. Within seconds, the app had scanned local Boston news sites and presented a list of headlines containing local developments and weather updates. “News orgs are gonna lose their shit about Arc Search,” Karolian posted on Threads. “It’ll read your journalism, summarize it for the user…and then if the user does click a link, they block the ads.”

Local news publishers, Karolian told JP, almost entirely depend on selling ads and subscriptions to readers who visit their websites to survive. “When tech platforms come along and disintermediate that experience without any regard for the impact it could have, it is deeply disappointing.” Arc Search does include prominent links and citations to the websites it summarizes from. But Karolian said that this misses the point. “It fails to ponder the consequences of what happens when you roll out products like this.”

Arc Search isn’t the only service using AI to summarize information from web pages. Google, the world’s biggest search engine, now offers AI-generated summaries to users’ queries at the top of its search results, something that experts have previously called “a bit like dropping a bomb right at the center of the information nexus.” Arc Search, however, goes a step beyond and eliminates search results altogether. Meanwhile, Miller has continued to tweet throughout the controversy, posting vague musings about websites in an “AI-first internet” while simultaneously releasing products based on concepts he has admittedly still not sorted out.

On a recent episode of The Vergecast that Miller appeared on, he compared what Arc Search might do to the economics of the web to what Craigslist did to business models of print newspapers. “I think it’s absolutely true that Arc Search and the fact that we remove the clutter and the BS and make you faster and get you what you need in a lot less time is objectively good for the vast majority of people, and it is also true that it breaks something,” he says. “It breaks a bit of the value exchange. We are grappling with a revolution with how software works and how computers work and that’s going to mess up some things.”

Karolian from The Globe said that the behavior of tech companies applying AI to content on the web reminded him of a monologue delivered by Ian Malcolm, one of the protagonists in Jurassic Park to park creator John Hammond about applying the power of technology without considering its impact: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could they didn’t stop if they should.”

Las Vegas News Magazine

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