Paoli-Based Search Engine DuckDuckGo Puts a Premium on Privacy
The eight-year-old company goes up against the Silicon Valley giants.
GREAT FIND: Gabriel Weinberg’s DuckDuckGo.com may be a little bird in a big pond, but it’s starting to gain traction.//
photo by tessa marie images
Visit the offices of DuckDuckGo.com, and it’s clear that these folks take their nerdy street cred seriously. After all, who but the biggest fans of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would have its classic motto, “Don’t panic!” emblazoned on their workplace wall—along with a stylized hitchhiker thumb?
Other interior-design touches scream Silicon Valley Internet-geek whimsy and functionality: repeated images of the company’s cartoon-duck mascot, a ping-pong table, furniture that feels more college dorm than executive suite, and an upstairs crash pad so out-of-towners can work late and not worry about a hotel.
But Northern California, this is not. In fact, it’s Paoli. And this isn’t just any startup hoping to make its mark among the legions of online businesses and hot apps.
DuckDuckGo is a search engine. And in a world where most online searches are performed by default through big boys like Yahoo, Bing and the 800-pound gorilla that is Google, one might ask, “What good is another one?”
Good question, until you consider that your reliance on Google to perform Web searches—on everything from your kid’s math homework to that funny-looking mole on your hip—is being systematically logged, processed, and fed into an ad-sales network that spans the width and breadth of the Internet. Then, based on your search history, targeted advertising magically appears in the margins of your browser window.
Once you realize what’s happening, it’s easy to wonder if anything you do online is private. Enter DuckDuckGo’s completely anonymous search engine.
The old saying goes, “You’re not being paranoid if they really are out to get you.” Since the emergence of the Internet in the early 1990s, most users have been too busy marveling at what it can do for us to worry about how it might be out to get us.
Then came the 9/11 attacks and the USA PATRIOT Act, which broadly expanded the federal government’s power to investigate suspected terrorist activity. Subsequent legislation increased those powers. But many Americans had no idea by how much.
After years of wondering exactly how the feds might be taking advantage of the tsunami of information on the Internet, it took just one man to expose the truth. In 2013, former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed that his employers were amassing data on everyday Americans. It was a moment that confirmed the worst fears of many.
Gabriel Weinberg didn’t set out to challenge Google on its own sprawling turf. He only wanted to make a great search engine even better.
An Atlanta native, DuckDuckGo’s founder and CEO had already started his earliest online businesses before graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The education software company didn’t last long. And his second venture, a social network designed to help people find old friends and classmates, came up against an emerging Facebook and was sold to Classmates.com in 2006.
“I wanted to do something that I was excited about, so I set out to essentially work on side projects I was interested in,” Weinberg says. “I was having problems with Google, because I wasn’t satisfied with the [search] results.”
Back in 2007, Google often returned a first page of results riddled with spam, inaccurate links and Web pages featuring little more than advertising. There had to be a better way. “There was an undercurrent of people wanting choice,” says Weinberg. “That was the first time I contemplated the idea of Google as a bigger company that was a monopoly.”
Weinberg was convinced that people were looking for what he was working on, but he also realized that it wasn’t quite ready. Fortunately, his idea was catching on among those looking for an alternative to Google. Many offered feedback on how DuckDuckGo could be better.
Through it all, search privacy remained central to the DuckDuckGo business philosophy. “I realized how personal it was, just from people typing in their financial or medical problems,” he says. “And that was kind of creepy in and of itself, because I was the only one running the search engine at the time, and I could see their stuff. That just made me uncomfortable personally.”
Add to that the increasing number of subpoenas Weinberg saw from law enforcement seeking access to records from social media and content sites. It didn’t take much for him to realize that he didn’t want to supply any of that data. “Then, when I went to investigate the business side, I realized that [not collecting user data] didn’t actually cut off your business model as a search engine, because you make money off keywords. You type in ‘car’ and get a car ad—it doesn’t have to be related to you at all,” Weinberg says. “So I made this decision at the beginning that I can do this and not have to feel creepy or hand over data to governments.”
Though its growth seems almost glacial in Internet time, DuckDuckGo is now poised to take advantage of increasing consumer concerns about privacy. A March 2015 study by the Pew Research Center revealed that, of the 22 percent of all adults who knew about the Snowden revelations, 25 percent changed their online behaviors in response. Yet 59 percent hadn’t adopted a search engine that didn’t track user data, and 13 percent had no idea that such tools were even available.
It’s a challenge that iTOK knows all too well. The 11-year-old business began as a subscription-based help desk and has since evolved into a computer-protection and identity-theft solution that essentially serves the same role for older computer users as many of us do for our parents and in-laws. In the midst of helping baby boomers, one of the company’s core missions is helping folks with privacy.
The issues of browsers and search engines come up “all the time” when discussing privacy with his clients, says Andrew Parker, vice president of communications at iTOK. The first solution is always to direct them to an open-source browser like Firefox, along with the DuckDuckGo search engine.
Adriana Herrera says DuckDuckGo has set a high bar for privacy-centered searching that others—herself included—are following. Her e-commerce site, GrandIntent.com, is designed to steer consumers toward companies that have goods they desire without using spyware, malware or online tracking. Although the company is just a year old, vendors are responding positively, she says. Why? Because they’re acutely aware that consumers are tired of being tracked.
For Weinberg, the biggest development of late has been the inclusion of DuckDuckGo as a search option through Firefox and Safari. Now, simply by using the search-window drop-down menu, users can forgo Google, Bing and Yahoo for a more private route instead.
“It’s the biggest companies on the planet saying they really care about privacy,” says Weinberg. “It’s validation that everyone should take it seriously.”