DuckDuckGo’s Quest to Prove Online Privacy Is Possible

Founded in 2008, DuckDuckGo is best known for its search engine. Which means that it has always been defined as a challenger to Google. It has not shied away from the comparison. In 2011, Weinberg, then the company’s sole employee, took out an ad on a billboard in San Francisco that declared, “Google tracks you. We don’t.” That branding—Google, but private—has served the company well in the years since.

“The only way to compete with Google is not to try to compete on search results,” says Brad Burnham, a partner at Union Square Ventures, which gave DuckDuckGo its first and only Series A funding in 2011. When the upstart launched, Google already controlled 90 percent of the market and was spending billions of dollars, and collecting data on billions of users, to make its product even better. DuckDuckGo, however, “offered something that Google couldn’t offer,” Burnham says: “They offered not to track you. And Google’s entire business model is, obviously, built on the ability to do that, so Google couldn’t respond by saying, ‘OK, we won’t track you either.’”

Neither DuckDuckGo nor anyone else came close to stopping Google from dominating search. Today, Google’s market share still hovers around the 90 percent range. But the pie is so enormous—advertisers spent $60 billion on search advertising in the US alone last year, according to eMarketer—that there’s quite a bit of money in even a tiny slice. DuckDuckGo has been profitable since 2014.

Like Google Search, DuckDuckGo makes money by selling ads on top of people’s search results. The difference is that while the ads you see when searching on Google are generally targeted to you in part based on your past searches, plus what Google knows about your behavior more broadly, DuckDuckGo’s are purely “contextual”—that is, they are based only on the search term. That’s because DuckDuckGo doesn’t know anything about you. It doesn’t assign you an identifier or keep track of your search history in order to personalize your results.

This non-creepy approach only protects you, however, while you’re on DuckDuckGo. “You’re anonymous on the search engine, but once you click off, now you’re going to other websites where you’re less anonymous,” Weinberg says. “How can we protect you there?”

DuckDuckGo’s first answer to that question rolled out in 2018, with the launch of a desktop browser extension and mobile browser that block third-party trackers by default wherever a user goes on the internet. It was good timing: 2018 was a banner year for raising privacy awareness. Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal broke that spring. The GDPR took effect in Europe, throwing into relief how little the US regulates data collection. That summer, the Associated Press revealed that many Google services were storing your location data even if you explicitly opted out. Data collection and privacy were firmly in the national conversation. Since then, congressional inquiries, antitrust lawsuits, Netflix documentaries, and a growing feud between Apple and Facebook have kept it there.

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“One of the funny things about DuckDuckGo is that the single best marketing we’ve ever had has been the gaffes that Google and Facebook have made over the years,” says Burnham. “Cambridge Analytica, for instance, was a huge driver of adoption for DuckDuckGo. There is an increasing awareness of how this business model works and what it means—not just in terms of the loss of privacy and agency over our own data, but also what it means for the vibrance and success of an open marketplace.”

Awareness is one thing, action another. DuckDuckGo was in position to capitalize on the rising tide of scandal because it has a reputation for building products that work. In 2019, for instance, it added a feature to its extension and browser that directs users to encrypted versions of websites whenever possible, preventing would-be hackers or ISPs from, say, looking over your shoulder as you type a password into a web page. While other encryption tools work by manually creating lists of tens of thousands of websites in need of an upgrade, DuckDuckGo crawled the internet to automatically populate a list of more than 12 million sites. The Electronic Frontier Foundation recently announced that it would incorporate DuckDuckGo’s dataset for its own HTTPS Everywhere extension. Similarly, Apple uses DuckDuckGo’s Tracker Radar dataset—a continuously updated, publicly available list of trackers assembled using open-source code—for Safari’s tracking prevention.

Weinberg is particularly proud of DuckDuckGo’s tracker prevention. Surveillance is so built into the infrastructure of the web that many sites will stop functioning if you block all cookies. Take Google Analytics, which is found on the vast majority of websites. “If you just straight-up block Google Analytics, you’ll break sites,” Weinberg says. As a result, mainstream browsers with tracking prevention, like Safari and Firefox, allow trackers to load, then try to restrict the data they can gather.

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