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What the Privacy Battle Upending the Internet Means for You

The internet is changing, including how much we pay for content and the ads and brands we see.

That’s because Apple and Google, two hugely influential tech companies, are rolling out privacy protections that hinder marketers from gaining access to our data when they show us ads. The changes have significant repercussions for online advertising, a business foundation for the free apps and websites that many use, like Facebook, TikTok, and the Weather Channel. Those sites and apps now have to come up with new ways to show ads or make money.

Here’s what that means for you.

What’s happening?

For decades, advertisers relied on “cookies,” pieces of code planted in web browsers that can follow our personal web browsing to track us online and show us relevant ads. When smartphones came along, marketers also used trackers inside mobile apps to follow people across apps and websites.

These advertising technologies became incredibly potent and effective — if you shopped for shoes, shoe ads would follow you around the internet — but with significant downsides. It enabled marketers to build hyper-realistic profiles of us that were hardly anonymous. It also opened doors for bad actors to steal people’s data and spread misinformation. In recent years, widespread concern over online privacy started an industrywide discussion about what to do about this tracking. Apple and Google have stepped in with different solutions.

What are Apple and Google doing?

In 2017, Apple debuted a version of its Safari web browser that prevented the technology used by marketing companies from following people from site to site. This year, Apple also released App Tracking Transparency, a pop-up window in iPhone apps that gives people a choice to not be tracked across apps and websites. In 2019, Google announced the Privacy Sandbox, a set of ideas for developing a more private web.

The company has plans for its Chrome web browser to block tracking cookies in 2023 in favor of a new system for advertisers to target us with ads. That system might be one called Federated Learning of Cohorts, or FLOC. It involves grouping people together based on their interests. If you visit websites related to tennis and dogs, you may be placed into a cohort of people who share those interests. As soon as a website loads, it scans the browser for an identification code to see what group you belong to. The website then can decide what types of ads to show your group. In theory, this would be less invasive than today’s tracking methods because advertisers wouldn’t have access to a cookie that contains your personal browsing history.

Because of the sheer reach of Apple’s and Google’s products — Google’s Chrome browser is No. 1 globally, and Apple’s iPhone is the best-selling phone — advertisers have no choice but to adapt. They now have to figure out new ways to show us ads, using less of our data. Some companies that rely on digital ads to appeal to people, such as small online publications, may not survive.

So what will the internet look like?

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

Longer-term, the internet you see using Apple products may end up looking dissimilar from the one you visit using Google products. Let’s start with Apple. In the past, if you opened a free iPhone weather app, it may have used tracking technology to look at what you did in other apps and websites. The app would then present an ad for something specific to you, like a restaurant that you previously ordered takeout from. But since that tracking can now be blocked, the weather app must rely on other data to serve an ad. That might be contextual information, such as the time of day. The upshot is that the ads you see might be less relevant and more random. With Google, if the company adopts the FLOC system, that will also change the nature of the ads you see.

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Today, when you use the Chrome browser to click on a pair of Nike sneakers, you are likely to see an ad for that specific shoe follow you from site to site and app to app. In the future, a website would lack the knowledge that you looked at those sneakers, but it would know that you were in a group that expressed interest in shoes. That means you might see ads for other athletic shoes, even if not for that specific sneaker. Apple’s

Google’s changing approaches may lead web publishers to choose sides, said Brendan Eich, a founder of Brave, a private web browser. If publishers are happier with Google’s ad solution, they may design their websites to work well on Google’s browser and not so well on Apple’s. That could result in a “fragmentation” of the web, where people see different versions of the internet depending on the browsers they use, Mr. Eich said.

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