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DuckDuckGo founder on privacy and why he doesn’t track users like Google

Published Jul 15th, 2015 10:56AM EDT
DuckDuckGo Vs Google

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When Gabriel Weinberg, founder of the privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo, first started working on the concept for it almost a decade ago now, he didn’t set out at first to build a company around it – or even a serious product that millions of people would eventually use.

Named after the childhood game of Duck Duck Goose, the search engine that in recent days announced it’s surpassed 10 million searches a day for the first time (around 115 searches a second) actually began with Weinberg deciding he wanted a better experience for himself while using a certain Mountain View-based tech giant’s search product.

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“I really set out to build tools on top of Google and then slowly got to something that could launch,” he says of DuckDuckGo, which advertises itself as “the search engine that doesn’t track you.”

Not only is it now a built-in search engine option in browsers like Safari and Firefox, but the company says the trove of news stories about data breaches and revelations of government snooping have helped keep the search engine’s numbers climbing up and to the right. And the recent passing of 10 million daily searches provided an opportunity for Weinberg to take some time to talk with BGR about everything from his website’s trajectory to other companies’ products he approves of, as well as the growth of DuckDuckGo’s “instant answers” product and how he thinks we all ought to think about privacy.

Weinberg has a few stats at the ready to underscore what the company is doing, and why: for starters, he points to a recent Pew report which found that 40 percent of Americans “think that their search engine provider shouldn’t retain information about their activity.”

That, coupled with the fact that DuckDuckGo says it’s grown 600 percent since word of the extent of NSA’s surveillance efforts became public two years ago, would appear to give Weinberg & Co. a big mandate. The trick, of course, is that his product has to be as good as something like Google’s to make you want to make the switch – and it has to be that good without resorting to a reliance on data collected via tracking and similar measures.

“It’s really a myth that you need to track people to get good search results,” Weinberg tells BGR. “Most of the personalization people want is really localization. And we can do that without tracking you, because your location is kind of embedded in the request you make to us. We can use that on the fly for that search and not save or store it and still give you local things on DuckDuckGo.

“Google is trying to show you things in search results they think you want to click on, which is pernicious, because that means filtering out things you’re less likely to click on. You might be researching a political candidate, and all of a sudden you’re not seeing diverse results.”

He says users can switch over to DuckDuckGo today and still get the complete experience they’re used to from Google, with a few extra benefits. Those include “instant answers,” the collection of card-like results shown at the top of the page intended to save users a few clicks or the chore of poring over links.

And that’s a steadily growing DuckDuckGo feature – this week, for example, the company announced the addition of 20 million new instant answers in eight new languages: Spanish, Portuguese, Russian, Dutch, Italian, Ukrainian, Swedish, and Norwegian.

The company does makes money through advertising, but it can’t target users on a personal level like Google because, of course, it collects no personal data it can target ads against. It also has no users emails to crawl or previous search queries to weigh, since those aren’t saved anywhere.

Weinberg says for DuckDuckGo it’s as simple as a user typing in ‘car’ as a search query and being shown a car ad.

“The argument we make about why you should switch to DuckDuckGo is you’re not getting tracked, you’re getting all the results you expect, the instant answers and you’re also getting a less cluttered, fun design,” Weinberg says. “Google has all these other properties that they’re trying to push through their search results, and that makes the whole experience more cluttered.”

Meanwhile, products and companies that get his stamp of approval from a privacy perspective include Apple – “I think they’re very serious about it. I like what Apple is doing” – as well as iMessage and the mail service FastMail.

He gives Apple high marks for, as he puts it, setting privacy policies that are specific to individual use cases. It was along those lines, of course, that Apple CEO Tim Cook gave a now-widely publicized speech recently in which he slammed tech companies that he said are “gobbling up everything they can learn about you and trying to monetize it.”

“(Apple is) very specific as to ‘We’re collecting this piece because we’re giving this benefit,’” explains Weinberg, who says he uses an iPhone and relies on iMessage extensively. “To me, that’s the best middle ground. We’re moving away from companies saying they’re going to collect everything, as much as possible, and use it down the line however they want. We’re moving to, ‘I’m going to collect the minimum amount necessary, and if I need more later, I’ll tell you later.’”

One thing that makes that balance tricky is in giving people value and not asking them to sacrifice too much in the process. Several social networks have come along, he notes, and baked privacy into their operation as a central feature – but if users see none of their friends using them, it’s then seen as too much of a sacrifice for them to move to those new services.

“I don’t think tracking is inherently evil,” Weinberg said. “My concern is what happens to your data and how it’s being used, especially when your data is sold and given to third parties.

“Our vision is still to provide a better search experience across the board, and what we think that means is better privacy. Our no tracking policy is clearly part of that, but we also need to have a good search experience you’d want to switch to. And we’re at the point now where you can switch to us and never look back.”

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.