The bundled web
It’s 2030, and hundreds of millions of people around the world support the artists and creators they love using highly personalized subscription bundles. Here’s how it works.
In most countries, people sign up through their internet provider, or one of a handful of big tech companies including Apple, Amazon, and Pounce (Netflix’s baby brother, founded for this purpose in 2024). Although it’s still possible to purchase a standalone Web Monetization subscription, most are bundled as part of a larger offering: a residential broadband plan, a Google Apps subscription, Amazon Prime, or—if you live in a country where these still exist—your cable TV subscription.
For a flat monthly fee, users can choose from different service tiers, and thousands of independent sites or pre-assembled bundles that include top news, gaming, and entertainment properties. Some providers mandate that sites within their bundles offer the same set of benefits, while others simply stipulate an “experience floor” (such as removing ads) and then let sites determine if and how to augment it.
Although the Web Monetization API remains open (and subscribers aren’t limited to browsing the sites a provider maintains a relationship with) the practical reality is somewhat different. Provider-supplied browser extensions serve as recommendation engines, driving subscribers to the most popular in-network content, and gamifying the experience through “frequent browser” clubs that offer monthly rebates if you primarily surf ‘in-network’. These recommendation engines can be so effective that close to 40% of subscribers in certain markets report being unaware that their monthly fee can be used to access content or receive perks on the open web.
User privacy remains a hot topic, but the comparatively small number of providers and sway most of them enjoy in related industries has conspired to keep regulation at bay. Worries that a user’s activity might be tracked by providers has also lessened due to a modified business model that places less emphasis on how often each individual subscriber accesses a site, or how much time they spend there.
Rates for Tier 1 sites are set by negotiation, the stipulations of which remain confidential, and backed by non-disclosure agreements. Rumour suggests however that in the U.S., a mere five sites now command 50% of the average user’s monthly subscription payment (and a shocking 25% in cases where users spend no time on these sites at all). Tier 2 sites receive a fixed, yet equally undisclosed, rate, and are also graded against a basket of “engagement” metrics to ensure they are performing well enough to remain within this tier. At least, that’s the industry’s best guess of how things work.
Below this is the long-tail, defined as anything outside Tier 2, and including out of network sites that users discover on their own. The rate these sites receive is algorithmically defined based on that user’s average spend outside tiered and bundled properties, and while site owners can register to access basic analytics, calculating revenue in advance (let alone reconciling it to analytics) remains precarious.
Agreements between providers and bundled properties may also include stipulations that go well beyond revenue. Providers may for example require that Tier 2 sites agree to a period of exclusivity, while Tier 1 sites may play one provider against the other—only offering their full content catalogue to one party in a given market, and then leaving the rest to sell access as an “out of network” add-on. Deals such as these are universally frowned upon and have been the subject of several (so far unsuccessful) anti-competitive challenges.
Enter, the Essential Web
A positive side effect of the exclusivity debate has however been the widely adopted concept of the Essential Web: websites that must remain accessible outside of paid subscription tiers as they’ve been deemed essential to local culture, knowledge, or social wellbeing.
In the EU (which pioneered the concept, and thanks to its 32 nations offers the largest Essential bundle) a third of essential sites are entirely tax-funded, and therefore shielded from the sort of conflicts that arise when serving both public and commercial interests. The rest operate as some manner of “social benefit” corporation, rolling any profit they earn back into programming or donating a portion to social causes.
Other countries subsidize essential sites, yet still permit them to monetize through merchandise, advertising, or premium memberships. Others still stipulate that providers (under penalty of losing their operating licence) contribute a percentage of their in-country profit to fund these sites. Regardless of the model, the upshot is that in most parts of the world, a country’s residents need only create a provider account to access their local Essential allotment.
Not everyone is happy with this arrangement. In 2026, a landmark ITU study revealed that more than 400 million people lived in countries where the Essential Web had been allocated through governmental decree and did not reflect the will of citizens or civil society. These countries are also more likely to have just one provider—often state-owned—leaving residents with little control over the content available in even non-essential bundles. This leaves the populace not only without affordable access to the global journalism, information, and entertainment brands they may actually want, but often compelled to regularly consume content from state-mandated bundles in an effort to not draw the wrong kind of attention.
Beyond concerns of equitability, there also remains the matter of affordability; a growing problem that impacts both consumers in low-income countries, and poorer segments of the population in more affluent ones. While web monetized sites tend to offer greater privacy and are often significantly faster than their ad-funded counterparts (a boon for users on mobile, especially in countries with slow networks and high data costs), visitors are now often asked to pay a monthly fee to access the very same content they would have in the past consumed for free.
The impact of this varies depending on where these consumers live. Studies in more affluent countries have shown that although low-income residents make use of the Essential Web, they are three times as likely to opt for providers that trade discounted memberships for permission to track and sell their browsing data.
This has led to the creation of programs such as the California WebStamp Initiative, which distributes prepaid web monetization vouchers to schools, food banks, and community centres in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and the recently launched MediWeb, which provides an annual web monetization stipend to all US Medicare and Medicaid users.
In low-income countries, the problem isn’t merely affordability for consumers, but profitability for providers. Although most countries have at least one local provider, they increasingly compete with a handful of global tech companies with both the expertise and infrastructure to quickly deploy localized offerings to almost any market. Flush with cash, these providers operate at very low margins, often using web monetization subscriptions to drive value in their overall product portfolio.
This distorts both the high and low end of the market, leaving local providers to choose between catering primarily to the upper classes, or attempting to cobble together a profitable offering in a market where local economics dictate an average subscription cost of just $1-2 a month.
Big tech in the meantime is happy to target both sides, tempting affluent consumers with low-cost international news and lifestyle packages, and flooding the rest of the market with an eclectic collection of regional social, educational, and entertainment content localized using increasingly competent real-time AI translation (that only they can afford to build and deploy). The latter practice has proven particularly damaging, resulting in only a fraction of subscription fees paid out in-country contributing to the creation—let alone growth—of the local content industry.
Green shoots for the longtail web
No one knows what the future will bring, yet in a corner of the web, the indie long tail may finally be about to catch a break. Prompted by India’s aim to double the number of STEM graduates in a decade, more than one hundred science and technology sites recently formed a collective to negotiate flat-rate access to all Indian residents over the age of twelve. The group has since expanded, signing agreements with five more countries, and launching a trend that looks set to define the next stage of the web.
From anime to knitting, indie sites are joining collectives to negotiate upper-tier rates and terms with providers. Thanks to this, provider bundles have already begun to diversify—or in markets such as Finland—disintegrate altogether in favour of entirely personalized packages. It’s a work in progress, and providers are still experimenting with ways to bubble up the vast ocean that is the open web, yet we’re already seeing tools spin up to fill the gap.
The most popular of these leverage an open specification that enables users to build “playlists'' of web destinations that are easy to share, combine into personalized bundles, and then uploaded to your provider.
This last step is primarily theatre (Web Monetization remains an open standard, so users have no need to declare intent to browse a site) yet in doing so can support their favourite sites who benefit from an initial payment boost, and (once enough subscribers from a given provider have added them) also qualify for access to convenience APIs, tools, and analytics.
The dream of a fully open and interoperable web monetization ecosystem may not have come to fruition, but it is now down a path that champions the diversity of the web and the agency of its users and creators.
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- Blendle’s seven-year journey to create a micropayments platform for news. Interesting to contrast this model with Scroll which is building a network of sites that users can access using a single subscription service, and Flattr, which enables users to support sites they care about through a single monthly subscription.
- How do subscription streaming services work (and do they?) in countries where economics dictate a much lower ($1-$2) subscription cost? Some examples from Nigeria and Bangladesh.
- A fascinating podcast from the BBC about how streaming music services are transforming how songs are written.
- Ethan Zuckerman, who runs the recently formed Institute for Digital Public Infrastructure, has written extensively about the need for what he calls “public service media”. Here are a few of his best articles.
- To mend a broken internet, create public parks.
- The changing face of local news media. Packed with contemporary examples, including cooperatives, buy-outs to non-profit, and government funding.
- Warner Music Group’s (PDF) annual report to the SEC - contains interesting examples of what happens when “a small number of digital music services control much of the legitimate digital music business” (in Warner’s case, Apple and Spotify are now 31% of its total revenues…and as there are only two large streaming services, and not that many music labels…that’s an awful lot of concentration in one spot).
- Musings on the value of a future Spotify for news.
- A piece from Neiman Lab’s excellent annual series on the future of news: Subscriptions start working for the middle.