Third-party extension not enough to address Coil’s transparency issues

Coil is a one-stop subscription service to support online creators. Coil customers must either install the Coil extension in their web browsers, or use a compatible browser like the Puma Browser. The service will reward participating websites and creators based on how much time Coil customers spend on their content.

Coil pays creators per second using the company’s “streaming payment” technology called Web Monetization. I’ve previously theorized on Coil’s per-second payment rates, and the fees it charges. I say “theorized” because Coil doesn’t want to talk about fees, rates, or how their system works.

Coil says it designed its service with privacy in mind. It doesn’t collect any information on the websites you visit or even who you pay. That sounds good in theory, but it also makes the service opaque. Who, exactly, gets a share of your monthly subscription? Does Coil pay anyone or keep the money for itself?

Coil doesn’t track your web browsing habits and even anonymize who you’re paying through the service. Coil doesn’t want its customers to think about these things either.

Stefan Thomas, CEO of Coil, discussed the product decisions that lead to this in a talk at the Future of Micropayments virtual conference. In his talk, Stefan discussed how Coil was designed to automate the payment decisions and pay creators per second spent. Coil wants to avoid the mental cost of thinking about who deserves to get paid a fraction of a cent. The mental overhead can outweigh the tiny monetary value that is paid, and risks driving customers to decision fatigue and ultimately make them leave the service.

“That creates an interesting market for companies like Coil or Flattr to come in and say, ‘we’re going to get really good at making those decisions on your behalf, and if you don’t think we’re doing a good job — you can go to one of our competitors.’ But we’re going to try and compete on the way we think you would try to do it, [and] make the decisions you would make if you had the energy and time to think about it all the time.”

Stefan Thomas, CEO of Coil, Future of Micropayments 2020

At the time of publication, Coil doesn’t have any competitors using its open Web Monetization protocol. Customers can’t choose another provider that’s more transparent or makes different micro-decisions about which creators to support. The lack of competition gives Coil the freedom to do as it wants. However, the lack of transparency and openness about the allocation of funds also makes people distrust the whole automatic micro-payments ecosystem.

I agree with Mr. Thomas’ points in principle; people shouldn’t have to waste their time making micro-decisions for every micro-payment and webpage they visit. Where and how you spend your time online decides who gets a share of your monthly Coil subscription. That isn’t the same as saying that you don’t want to be able to check where your money went after the fact. You can check your browser history to see what websites you’ve visited, and there are tools to analyze and make pretty graphs of it. Coil needs to build the same sort of tools for visualizing what happens with the monthly funds you’ve paid to and through the service.

I also believe that Coil has taken away a little too much control and transparency. Coil’s model assumes you want to pay if you’re consuming a website or creator’s content. Sometimes you explicitly don’t want to support a specific website or creator, even though you occasionally encounter content from them. Coil needs an option in its extension to block websites and creators from receiving payments.

PayTracker is a third-party web browser extension that records the transaction made by the Coil extension. It keeps a ledger of which websites you’ve visited and how much you’ve paid each one through Coil. The extension only has an all-time tally, and it can’t break down your spending by month/payment cycle.

The PayTracker extension only works with a single web browser. It doesn’t sync between your browsers and devices, and can’t track Coil transactions made with third-party Coil clients like the Puma Browser or Imgur Emerald. So, how do you know that Imgur or Puma Browser won’t siphon off your entire monthly subscription in the background? You don’t.

This is the heart of Coil’s transparency problem, and it’s one no third-party can’t fix. You have to trust the service to do the right thing, and they don’t offer any insight into what happens with your money. Coil’s business model also raises questions on what happens to funds you don’t spend on creator content. Does Coil pocket the money? or does it redistribute the money to participating creators?

Coil should at least show a monthly summary of how much of your subscription has been paid out to creators. It should also be more open about its fees, and record details on which clients made the payments (e.g. “50 % Firefox extension, 40 % Puma Browser, and 10 % Imgur Emerald.”) These are details the company already has without any need to collect additional data from its customers.

That being said, Coil should collect some additional details about your browsing. E.g. it could record the number of creators you’ve paid and the average payment size to each creator. (Though, it might already have that data too!) Coil should also track the broad categories of the websites you support through the service (e.g. news, social, sports, blogs, etc.) There isn’t any personal information in these details, and the data can help prove that the service is doing what it’s supposed to.