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$100M 'Grant for the Web' hopes to make the internet pivot to privacy

The idea is to come up with internet business models that aren't based on ad tracking.

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Tech organizations are betting $100 million on a grant to change the internet's business model.

Angela Lang/CNET

Staying private online can sometimes feel like a cat-and-mouse game. As you download the latest ad blocker to prevent trackers from knowing your online activities, advertisers are already looking for ways to work around it. And unless the internet's entire business model changes, you're doomed to this cycle of constantly trying to protect your privacy online. 

But a group of technology organizations is betting $100 million that the model can be reinvented and your privacy can be preserved. 

On Monday, nonprofit Mozilla, licensing group Creative Commons and content-monetization company Coil announced the Grant for the Web, offering to fund projects that propose alternatives to the internet's ad-tracking business model. The grant looks to distribute $100 million over the next five years to projects with feasible plans for protecting privacy while letting content creators profit online. Half the grant will go to open-source projects.

"We need a lot more than $100 million to fix the internet, but this is a good start," said Mozilla Foundation Executive Director Mark Surman. "There's nothing wrong with capitalism, but when it's based on pervasive and constant surveillance, that's not the right way to run our digital economy." 

Moving away from an ad-focused business model would be a fundamental shift in the way the internet works, but calling for a new privacy-focused internet isn't a new concept. Tim Berners-Lee, the World Wide Web's creator, has long suggested open-source technology that would protect people's data and shift the focus away from advertisers. YouTubers have also looked at cryptocurrency payment systems that would free them from relying on advertisers. 

A major challenge is changing people's relationship with online content, which has mostly been free for about the last 30 years. When Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg testified to Congress in 2018, he told lawmakers that the social network needed to be free to "connect everyone around the world."

Putting privacy first

The grant isn't aimed at completely getting rid of ad tracking; it wants to encourage alternatives. Surman spoke of how environmentally friendly products may not be the most popular choice, but they do provide options for eco-conscious consumers. 

"It would be folly to think that magically we're going to replace the 'pay with your privacy' model on the internet. The goal is to create a new alternative for people to make choices, and there just are none now," Surman said.

That new business model could come in a variety of forms. Part of the grant's goal is to fund different approaches to a privacy-driven economy online, and provide advice and input on how to make them successful. 

For instance, there could be awards for micropayment systems, or for software developers working on alternatives to data tracking. The micropayment system could involve your browser paying a fraction of a penny to each site you visit, said Coil CEO Stefan Thomas. 

Another idea would be visitors choosing to pay the creators they value, said Creative Commons interim CEO Cable Green. 

"Hopefully, the goal here with micropayments is if somebody chose to be anonymous, they're not tracked, that data isn't being sold," Green said. 

The momentum for a privacy-driven business model online is strong, and all three entities agreed that now's an ideal time for this grant program. With privacy concerns breaking out over the last year thanks to countless breaches, people are more aware than ever of how much tech giants know about them. 

Coil, Creative Commons and Mozilla are optimistic, but they're also aware of the hurdle ahead with the grant program. If it works, it could create an internet infrastructure that would end the online cat-and-mouse privacy chase.

"The grant is structured to run over five years because we think that's enough time to get to a tipping point where this either becomes a viable ecosystem or not," Coil's Thomas said. "If it does happen, one of the nice things about this ecosystem is that it tends to attract more momentum." 

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