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The Scroll subscription service is an ingenious web technology hack

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Ethelyn Brye is an award-winning author and blogger. Growing up in Switzerland and influenced by renowned Swiss design and a lot of fresh mountain air, she attended and completed design studies in Geneva. Post graduation she moved to Washington State to work for a design firm, but her love of writing brought her to Cyanosaur. She's highly interested in strategy rpgs, mountain climbing, board games with friends and skiing. She lives in Seattle, Washington, with her lovely cat Armstrong.

Welcome back to Processor, a newsletter about computers and also sometimes other things. You are probably expecting me to spend several paragraphs making fun of Google for creating yet another messaging product, as The Information reported yesterday. Not gonna do it: it’s enterprise-focused and from what I can tell about Google’s cloud business right now, a haphazard message app strategy is the least of their worries. Instead, the thing that blew my mind yesterday was Scroll, a new $5 per month subscription service that gives you a bunch of websites without ads. I kept on experiencing successive waves of small revelations when I thought about it. I’ll disclose now that Vox Media (and therefore The Verge) are partners, but I had no idea this service existed until it was announced yesterday. First: although I don’t have any specific reason to distrust Scroll, this still feels like a data privacy time bomb. Scroll won’t sell my data, but what if the company that snaps up Scroll does someday? There’s a prominent button for deleting your data, at least. Scroll’s privacy policy is refreshingly readable and candid about what it gathers and what it does and doesn’t share — including being honest about sharing information with governments when required to by law. It also notes that your data could go along with a sale of the company itself. Basically I suggest you find the “delete your information” button and remember where it is. Second: Scroll’s entire method of stopping ads is an absolutely ingenious repurposing of third-party cookies. You log into Scroll, it sets a cookie, and then the websites you visit see that special cookie and don’t serve you ads. It’s not even ad-blocking, they just don’t get served. It is actually quite elegant, but if you take a second to think through the chain of communications and deals that are required to make it that elegant, it seems like a hellacious hack. Then again, as Nilay Patel said to me today, isn’t most web technology a hellacious hack? There are a few more details — Safari in particular is stricter than other browsers and so it requires an extension. Brave will also need some extra effort to work with Scroll. (Scroll has a snarky footnote about them.) Third: it’s a much easier solution for websites to get paid than asking each of them to roll their own subscription. It tracks where you visit and automatically divvies payment up between those partner sites. I could (and eventually will) quibble about the percentage Scroll is taking: $1.50 out of $5, or thirty percent. As an independent startup, I’m not going to begrudge Scroll its revenue, and it likely needs a bigger cut to stay in business than Apple or Google do on their App Stores. If the company hits scale, though, I’d like to hope that it will find a way to reduce that cut. Fourth: hang on let’s think about that hellacious hack again! Although you have to constantly have Scroll
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