The Great Paywall: When LLMs Break the Internet

James Thomason
6 minute read
June 8, 2023
The Internet, since its inception, has been a haven for freely accessible information. Yet, an unprecedented shift is likely upon us. We find ourselves on the cusp of a significant metamorphosis, a movement towards a digital landscape ensnared behind what we have dubbed at Next Wave Partners as the 'Great Paywall.'

The Great Paywall is the metaphorical threshold we're fast approaching in the digital realm, where the majority of online content might no longer be freely available. In this new landscape, users would need to pay for access to content that was once openly accessible. The days of free browsing, unrestricted information access, and freely consuming content may soon be in our rear-view mirror.

This shift is being driven by the mounting challenges faced by content creators. With the proliferation of AI and LLMs, these creators are seeing their hard work repurposed without compensation. AI can scrape, analyze, and repurpose content on a mass scale, effectively benefiting from the work of content creators without providing due credit or financial reimbursement. This dynamic will likely lead to an increasing call for better monetization models to ensure creators are adequately compensated for their work, thus giving birth to the concept of the Great Paywall.

The Great Paywall: Functionality and Challenges

However, understanding the need for the Great Paywall is only half the battle. The question then arises: how will this paywall function in practice?

At its worst, we could see a chaotic eruption of varied paywall solutions, each presenting unique intricacies and challenges. A scenario reminiscent of the 'cookie pop-up' hell birthed by the European Union regulations but on a much grander and more complex scale.

In an ideal scenario, we could hope for a solution that retains the frictionless user experience we have become accustomed to, thanks to the relentless efforts of tech giants like Google and Facebook. This solution would require a technology that allows for smooth, transparent on-the-fly payments for subscriptions and other content, without disrupting the user experience. This is where the innovative technologies like Blockchain and Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs) come into play.

Blockchain, NFTs, and the Future

Blockchain and NFTs could offer the key to a seamless transition towards a paywall-enclosed digital world. Traditionally, NFTs have been associated with establishing ownership of digital assets. However, they could also be seen as tokens granting access to specific resources for a predetermined time. An example of this is the Access Protocol, which introduces a token-based model for accessing creators' content.

Despite the promise of these technologies, they are not without their issues. The complexity of the processes, the intricate jargon, and the unfamiliarity of the space can breed mistrust in users and present formidable barriers to adoption.

The incongruity between the Web's open and free principles and the emerging necessity of paying for content through a complex token-based system seems stark. Yet, we stand on the brink of this transition, necessitating innovative solutions.

Simplifying the Future

Imagine a world where, instead of grappling with complex tokens and crypto jargon, you have a digital wallet connected to your Web browser. This wallet would automatically handle microtransactions as you browse and consume content, creating a seamless and simplified experience, reminiscent of exchanging tokens at a funfair or arcade.

This transition to the Great Paywall isn't just about the monetization of content; it's about balancing the scales and recognizing the value of content creators in the digital ecosystem. In the next chapter of the Web, users aren't just passive consumers but active participants whose attention carries tangible value.

Our exploration leads us towards several models that offer intriguing possibilities: the Attention Model, where end-users are paid by advertisers; the Subscription Model, offering a more direct way to support creators; and the Attribution Model, where AIs compensate creators for repurposing their original content.

The Attention Model

Let's disrupt the current narrative. What if instead of content creators, the end-users get paid by advertisers for their attention? This radical shift transforms the conventional advertising model. However, it would introduce new challenges, such as determining the value of a user's attention and addressing privacy concerns.

One successful attempt at this model is the Basic Attention Token (BAT), a utility token used by Brave, a privacy-focused browser. BAT users choose to view ads and are rewarded for their attention, tying the token's value to user attention.


  1. Determining Value: What's the worth of a user's attention? Should pay rates be decided by the length of engagement, the depth of interaction, the user's demographics, or a blend of these and more?
  2. Privacy Concerns: Direct payments to users imply access to personal information by advertisers. This access could open a new set of privacy concerns, even with blockchain's encryption and anonymity.
  3. Bots and Fake Accounts: The Internet is notorious for bots and fake accounts. How will this model differentiate real users from these entities?


  1. Power Shift: This model redistributes advertising dollars to end-users, shifting the power dynamic from corporations to individuals.
  2. User Engagement: Directly compensating users for their attention might increase user engagement with paid content.

The Subscription Model

Coil, another innovative platform, uses an open standard called Web Monetization to support creators. Based on a fixed subscription fee, it facilitates streaming micropayments to creators in real-time as their content is consumed, eliminating the need for users to manage tokens or balances. However, its success is dependent on the widespread adoption of the Web Monetization standard, which remains limited.


  1. Adoption of Standard: Coil's success depends on the widespread adoption of the Web Monetization standard, which has been slow.
  2. Limited User Control: With a flat subscription rate, users lack the flexibility to support individual creators more directly.


  1. Simplicity: The Subscription Model is straightforward, with users not needing to manage tokens or balances.
  2. Ad-free and Privacy-respecting: This model eliminates reliance on ads and does not require user data to operate, offering a cleaner and more private user experience.

The Attribution Model

In a radical departure from current practices, we could imagine a scenario where AIs automatically compensate creators when they use their work. This would involve using similarity analysis to attribute responses to the original sources of information and compensate content creators accordingly.


  1. Attribution Accuracy: The effectiveness of this model depends on the accuracy of the attribution AI model used to associate AI responses with original content sources.
  2. Establishing Value: Similar to the Attention Model, determining the value of a creator's contribution can be complex. How much should be paid for certain content? Is it based on its usage frequency, uniqueness, or some other factor?


  1. Rewarding Creativity: This model incentivizes content creation by ensuring creators are compensated each time their work is used by AI systems.
  2. Fairness: The Attribution Model promotes fairness by ensuring that the economic value derived from creators' works is returned to them.

Each of these models represents different ways to navigate the Great Paywall, balancing the need to monetize content with maintaining a user-friendly and equitable Web.

The Great Paywall presents both a challenge and an opportunity. It's a call to arms for innovators, thinkers, and doers who dare to imagine a different kind of Web – one where individuals are acknowledged for their role in the digital ecosystem, not as mere commodities, but as valuable contributors whose time and attention are worth compensating.

About the Author

James Thomason is a Managing Partner at Next Wave Partners, a venture studio focused on the next long wave of innovation including AI, augmented reality, data infrastructure, and alternative energy. He is a career technologist and innovator with over 25 years of Silicon Valley experience building and exiting early-stage startup companies. James holds 7 patents in areas of machine learning, cloud computing, virtualization, peer to peer networks, and internet routing. He has written for Forbes, Network World, Information Week, VMBlog, ZDNet, Information Age, and numerous other publications as a thought leader. James has guest lectured on entrepreneurship and innovation at Princeton University's School of Engineering and Applied Science, as well as the United Nations Inter-governmental Consultations Migration, Asylum and Refugees on cyber trafficking and exploitation.