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The battle for privacy is changing the Internet, how does that affect you?


Customers wait outside the Apple store on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on April 29, 2021. (Gabby Jones / The New York Times)

The Internet is changing, including what we pay for the content, the ads, and the brands we see.

This is because Apple and Google, two highly influential tech companies, are implementing privacy protections that prevent merchants from accessing our data when they show us ads. The changes have major repercussions for online advertising, which is the business foundation for the free apps and websites that many of us use, such as Facebook, TikTok, and the Weather Channel. Now these sites and apps have to come up with new ways to display ads or make money.

This is what it means to you.

What’s going on?

For decades, advertisers have relied on “cookies,” snippets of code placed on web browsers that can follow our personal web browsing to track us online and show us advertisements of interest to us. When smartphones appeared, merchants also used trackers within mobile apps to follow people through apps and websites.

These ad technologies became incredibly powerful and effective – if you bought shoes, shoe ads followed you online – but with significant downsides. They allowed merchants to create hyper-realistic profiles of us who were far from anonymous. They also opened the doors for bad actors so they could steal people’s data and spread misinformation.

In recent years, widespread concern about privacy online has led to an industry-wide debate about what to do with this tracking. Apple and Google have come up with different solutions.

What are Apple and Google doing?

In 2017, Apple released a version of its Safari web browser that prevented the technology used by marketing companies from following people from one site to another. This year, Apple also implemented App Tracking Transparency, a pop-up window in iPhone apps that gives people the option not to be tracked through apps and websites.

In 2019, Google presented the Privacy Sandbox, a set of ideas to develop a more private web. The company has plans for Chrome, its web browser, to block tracking cookies in 2023 in favor of a new system for advertisers to show us their ads.

That system could be the so-called federated learning of cohorts (known as FLOC, for its acronym in English). It consists of grouping people based on their interests. If you visit websites related to tennis and dogs, they can place you in a cohort of people who share those interests. As soon as a website loads, it scans the browser for an identification code to see which group you belong to. And the website can decide what types of ads it will show to your group.

In theory, this would be less invasive than current tracking methods because advertisers would not have access to a cookie containing your personal browsing history.

Due to the enormous reach of Apple and Google products — Google’s Chrome search engine is number one in the world and Apple’s iPhone is the best-selling phone — advertisers would have no choice but to adapt. Now they have to discover new ways to show us ads, using less personal data. Some companies that relied on digital ads to attract customers, such as small digital publications, may not survive.

So what will the internet look like?

In the short term, digital ads are going to look different.

In the long run, the website for Apple products may end up looking different from the website for Google products.

Let’s start with Apple. In the past, if you opened a free iPhone weather app, it could use tracking technology to see what you were doing on other apps and websites. After that, the app featured an ad for something specific to you, like a restaurant where you ordered takeout.

But since this tracking can now be blocked, the weather app must rely on other data to show you an ad. It can be contextual information, such as the time of day. The result is that the ads you see can be less relevant and more random.

In the case of Google, if the company adopts the FLOC system, the nature of the ads that are seen will also change.

These days, when you use the Chrome browser to click on a pair of Nike shoes, you will likely see an ad for that specific shoe that follows you from site to site and app to app. In the future, a website might not know that you saw that model, but it does know that you are in a group that has expressed an interest in footwear. That means you may see ads for other athletic shoes, but not for the specific model you already saw.

The strategy changes of Apple and Google can lead web publishers to choose a sideaccording to Brendan Eich, founder of Brave, a private web browser. If publishers are happier with Google’s ad solution, they could design their websites to work well in Google’s browser and not so well in Apple’s.

That could lead to “fragmentation” of the web, where people see different versions of the internet depending on the browsers they use, Eich said.

What else does Apple’s Internet version mean to me?

The good news is that you will have more privacy on the internet thanks to Apple changes.

But there is a downside. In the end, many online products and services can cost more.

Today, small brands can spend a modest amount to target specific customers with ads on different websites and applications. But since this type of tracking can now be blocked on Apple devices, small businesses may have to choose big brands like Facebook, Google, and Etsy and advertise on each of those platforms.

In other words, companies may have to spend more to advertise their products in various places. Consumers could end up paying this increase in costs because there would be an increase in prices.

Marketing strategist Eric Seufert predicted that more iPhone apps would stop trying to make money from ads. Seufert cree that they will start charging for subscriptions or add-ons within the apps.

The move towards subscriptions has been going on for some time, but is expected to accelerate. Between 2017 and 2020, the portion of top video games offering subscriptions on Apple’s US App Store grew from 11 percent to 18 percent, according to a study by SensorTower, a mobile app research firm.

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