DuckDuckGo Pushes Its Privacy-Geared Search Engine at Gel Conference

4/23/13Follow @jpruth

Many search engine providers try to balance the privacy of users with leveraging the wealth of data they can collect—but not the developer of DuckDuckGo.

CEO and founder Gabriel Weinberg simply does not want to know what people are looking for on the Web when they use his platform. He spoke in New York about his search engine at last week’s Gel Conference, which is put on by consulting firm Creative Good and featured speakers who talked about their experiences in technology, business, and society.

DuckDuckGo, based in Paoli, PA, has been particularly vocal about not wanting to touch the tar baby of users’ search histories. The company does not track such data, often used by others to tailor Web ads; however, that raises questions of how DuckDuckGo generates revenue. “We make money the same way Google makes money, he said. “When you type in a search, we have an ad based on that search term.”

In spite of that comparison, Weinberg, who has some history casting pebbles at Google, threw down the gauntlet again at the feet of the search giant. “It is a myth that Google needs to track you to make money through Web search,” he said. “Most advertisers are advertising against keywords, not people.”

Typically, when someone looks up info on various search engines, the words they enter and the links they click can be used to push ads relevant to what they searched for, he said.

Search engines providers might also use that information to record a history of what was looked up. This can lead to ads appearing that are highly specific to each user. “It’s a very visible example of tracking that people are familiar with, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg,” said Weinberg.

He said his engine offers users a choice for privacy with little sacrifices on search results. Weinberg founded his company in 2008 and said he prefers not to see what users are up to. “I didn’t want to be handing over data to government, law enforcement, or any entity under court order,” he said, “which I knew was inevitable as our traffic was growing.” Use of DuckDuckGo’s engine has picked up over the years according to its traffic page, from 1.18 million total direct queries in April 2010 to 35.61 million total direct queries so far this month.

The legal arena, Weinberg said, has taken an interest in turning user information into tools for the courtroom. “Lawyers have woken up to the fact that they can use your data to win cases,” he said.

Attorneys in patent litigation cases, according to Weinberg, might use Web histories as evidence to see if an accused violator checked online if they were in breach of a patent. He also asserted that court orders were being issued more and more to retrieve user information in civil and corporate litigation, not just by law enforcement.

Commercial interest in information on the Web is to be expected, Weinberg said, however many people do not realize how data about them is used regardless of the policies posted online by search companies. For instance, he said, users might assume they are anonymous, but the ads and deals they are offered can vary based on their respective search histories.

Furthermore, Weinberg said, those deals can be set at different prices for the same product because of what people searched for previously.

DuckDuckGo and Weinberg seem to be on a mission to call out others in the search sector, especially Google, regarding Web histories and privacy. “We ran a series of experiments, one with the Wall Street Journal, on political searches last year,” he said. Though users may expect to receive the same results, Weinberg said the study showed variations among results—even when logged out from Google, and even for users within the same cities. “Some people would see MSNBC, some people would see Fox News based on their previous search history even when signed out and incognito,” he said.

However, Google counters that users’ saved search history only comes into play when signed in. Google also points out that users can disable customizations based on search activity by setting an opt-out, deleting cookies, or starting a new session.

Weinberg speculated further about Google and users’ histories. “They run four of the biggest ad networks in the world—AdSense, AdWords, DoubleClick, and AdMob,” he said, “and they run a host of consumer services that are popular but hard to monetize: Gmail, YouTube, and Google+. They need to track you so they can monetize those services.” By his assessment, Google pushes ads on platforms such as YouTube based on the users’ search histories.

Google says it might use search info for the ads that appear with search results and Gmail, but not its other services.

DuckDuckGo, according to Weinberg, is focused solely on its search engine—alleviating the need to track its users to support other services. “We’re like Google was 10 years ago if they hadn’t gone in all those other directions,” he said.

João-Pierre S. Ruth is the editor of Xconomy New York. He can be reached at jpruth@xconomy.com and followed on Twitter @jpruth. Follow @jpruth

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  • legpeek

    I will give them a try…