15/07/2024

A recent addition to the Arc browser introduces a feature that condenses search results onto a single webpage, autonomously generating summary pages, potentially leading to the creation of deceptive websites.

The Browser Company, a startup responsible for developing the Arc web browser, has introduced a sleek new iPhone app named Arc Search. In a departure from traditional link displays, its innovative “Browse for Me” feature reads the initial pages and condenses them into a single, Arc-formatted webpage using substantial language models from OpenAI and other sources. In the event a user opts to navigate to the original pages, Arc Search automatically blocks ads, cookies, and trackers. While Arc’s initiatives to redefine web browsing have garnered widespread acclaim, the recent introduction of “Browse for Me” has prompted the company’s first online backlash.

Over the past few days, the feature has faced criticism for its potential impact on content creators. Websites have historically relied on ads and steering visitors toward subscriptions to monetize traffic, forming a crucial revenue stream for creators. By diminishing the necessity for users to visit actual websites, “Browse for Me” raises concerns about depriving creators of compensation and potentially discouraging them from producing content.

The criticism has sparked a debate on how this new feature benefits users but potentially disadvantages content creators. Ben Goodger, a software engineer involved in creating Firefox and Chrome, expressed the dilemma by highlighting the importance of supporting web creators in their efforts to share knowledge. The question arises: if a browser extracts information from web pages without users visiting them directly, what incentive remains for individuals to invest time and effort in creating websites?

The backlash has led Josh Miller, the co-founder and CEO of the company, to question the fundamental nature of web monetization. Miller, formerly a product director at the White House and part of Facebook after its acquisition of his previous startup, Branch, acknowledges the need for an evolution in how creators monetize web pages. Despite advocating for the transformative potential of generative AI to disrupt the existing web oligopoly, he admits uncertainty about compensating writers and creators whose websites are scraped by his browser, acknowledging the significant upheaval in the economics of online publishing.

Miller has refrained from engaging with Engadget, and The Browser Company has not responded to queries from Engadget.

Arc has distinguished itself from other web browsers by reimagining their appearance and functionality since its public release in July of the previous year. Noteworthy features include the ability to vertically split multiple tabs and a picture-in-picture mode for Google Meet video conferences. In recent months, Arc has rapidly integrated AI-powered features such as automatic web page summaries, ChatGPT integration, and an option for users to switch their default search engine to Perplexity, a Google competitor utilizing AI to provide search answers through summarizing web pages in a chat-style interface with small citations to sources. The introduction of the “Browse for Me” feature places Arc in the center of a major ethical dilemma in AI: determining how creators are compensated when AI products repurpose and extract content.

Anil Dash, a tech entrepreneur and blogging pioneer, expresses concern about the impact of such features on the internet’s essence, emphasizing the importance of passionate individuals creating websites about topics they love. He criticizes modern search engines and AI chatbots that absorb internet content, aiming to discourage people from visiting websites, labeling them as “deeply destructive” in a Threads post shortly after Arc’s app release.

Dash points out the common tendency to blame the prevalence of pop-ups, cookies, and intrusive advertisements for the perceived broken state of modern web browsing. There are indications that users may be receptive to the idea of having information summarized by large language models instead of navigating multiple web pages manually. Josh Miller noted on Thursday that “Browse for Me” was chosen over regular Google search in Arc Search on mobile for around 32 percent of all queries. The company is actively working to make it the default search experience and extend it to the desktop browser.

Dash criticizes the limited focus on short-term user benefits, arguing that users should also be fully informed about the broader impact on the digital ecosystem. A food blogger succinctly captures the dual nature of this development, tweeting at Miller, “As a consumer, this is awesome. As a blogger, I’m a lil afraid.”

Matt Karolian from The Boston Globe experimented with Arc Search by typing “top Boston news” and using “Browse for Me.” The app swiftly scanned local Boston news sites, presenting a list of headlines with local developments and weather updates. Karolian predicts that news organizations will express concern about Arc Search, as it reads and summarizes journalism for users, potentially blocking ads when they choose to access the full article by clicking a link.

Matt Karolian from The Boston Globe expresses deep disappointment, noting that local news publishers heavily rely on ad sales and subscriptions from website visits for survival. He criticizes tech platforms for disrupting this experience without considering the potential consequences. While Arc Search provides links and citations to the websites it summarizes, Karolian argues that this aspect misses the broader implications of such product releases.

Arc Search is not the sole service employing AI to summarize web page information. Google, the largest search engine globally, also offers AI-generated summaries in search results, a move previously described as “dropping a bomb right at the center of the information nexus.” However, Arc Search takes a further step by eliminating search results entirely. Meanwhile, Josh Miller continues to tweet about an “AI-first internet” amid the controversy, simultaneously releasing products based on concepts he admits to not having fully sorted out.

On a recent episode of The Vergecast, Miller compared the potential impact of Arc Search on the web’s economics to what Craigslist did to the business models of print newspapers. He acknowledges that while Arc Search streamlines the user experience and provides information more quickly, it also disrupts a part of the value exchange. Miller recognizes that the ongoing revolution in software and computer functionality is bound to create disruptions. Karolian draws parallels between tech companies applying AI to web content and a monologue from Jurassic Park, where Ian Malcolm warns about the consequences of applying technology’s power without considering its impact.

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