The battle for digital privacy is changing the internet

Apple released a pop-up for the iPhone in April asking people for permission to be tracked by various apps.

Google recently announced plans to disable tracking technology in its Chrome browser.

And Facebook said last month that hundreds of its engineers are working on a new way to serve ads without relying on people’s data.

The developments may seem like technical solutions, but they are linked to something bigger: an increasingly intense battle for the future of the internet. The battle engulfed the tech titans, brought down Madison Avenue, and disorganized small businesses. And it marks a dramatic shift in the way people’s personal information can be used online, with far-reaching implications for how businesses make digital money.

At the heart of the problem is the lifeblood of the Internet: advertising.

More than 20 years ago, the Internet revolutionized the advertising industry. It has removed newspapers and magazines that rely on selling print ads and ads and threatens to dethrone television advertising as the primary marketing medium to reach a large audience.

Instead, brands run their ads on websites, with their promotions regularly tailored to people’s specific interests. These digital ads fueled the growth of Facebook, Google, and Twitter, offering their search and social media services to people for free. But in return, people were tracked from one site to another by technologies like “cookies” and their personal information was used to direct them to relevant marketing.

Now the system, which has grown into a $350 billion digital advertising industry, is being dismantled. Driven by fears of online privacy, Apple and Google began reforming online data collection rules. Referring to the privacy mantra, Apple has released tools that prevent marketers from following people. Google, which is based on digital advertising, is trying both ways and reinventing the system so that it can continue to target people without access to their data.

When personal information is no longer the currency people give to online content and services, something else must take its place. Media publishers, app makers, and e-commerce stores are now exploring ways to survive a privacy-conscious Internet and, in some cases, change their business models. Many people choose to allow people to pay for what they get online, charging subscription fees and other fees, rather than using their personal information.

Jeff Green, CEO of Trade Desk, an advertising technology company in Ventura, Calif., that partners with major advertising agencies, said fighting behind the scenes is fundamental to the nature of the Internet.

But Google also said it won’t disable cookies until marketers find another way to show ads to people. In March, the company tested a method its data holders use to classify people based on their interests, allowing marketers to target ads to those groups rather than individuals. This approach is known as Federated Cohort Learning or FLOC.

Plans are being made. Google won’t block trackers in Chrome until 2023.

Still, advertisers said they were concerned.

In an article this year, Sheri Bachstein, head of IBM Watson Advertising, warned that the privacy changes carry the risk of relying solely on advertising for revenue. Companies need to adapt, he said, including charging subscription fees and using artificial intelligence to serve ads.