- DuckDuckGo offering services which protect user privacy
- Achieved profitability in the last five years, despite non-tracking user data
- Privacy is increasingly becoming a concern for individuals and governments worldwide
Data is akin to a gold mine in today’s global environment and data safety has become a major concern for individuals and governments globally. Moreover, with the rise of smartphones and cheap availability of internet data, internet use has risen many folds in the past decade. This has led to several businesses offering services online in order to reach a vast majority of the population. Further, this has generated huge amounts of online data and traffic. While search engines have played a pivotal role in mining this huge database and providing the relevant data to its intended users/traffic. Thus, businesses have been increasingly reliant on these search engines to direct traffic to their websites. In order to imagine the importance of search engines, the example of the search engine giant Google can be considered, which has become one of the most valued global companies within a short span of a decade. Furthermore, among the search engines, Google has the highest market share globally (barring Russia and China).
Google controls most of the data flow online and thus, dictate the consumer behaviours and preferences online. It does the same by storing and analysing user data to identify patterns and preferences and on the basis of this, provide curated content to users (including personalised advertisements). This has made Google a preferred choice for advertisements at the expense of user privacy.
In light of several privacy scandals in the recent years (Facebook once considered selling user access data to the third party and Timehop losing personal information of over 21 million accounts) and a host of virus attacks (Ransomware, etc.) as well as Google facing privacy and antitrust scrutiny (on accusation of market distorting behaviour globally), users are becoming more and more wary of their data and privacy breaches.
Hence, with everything being tracked and stored by the search engine and other online social media giants, it poses a grave threat for the global population and a massive data breach can become catastrophic for the global economy. The threat is real and has been acknowledged by regulators and major governments world over, however, there has not been any concrete legislation for regulating the data and user privacy. Though, many governments are now considering to amend their competition policy to keep a check on these platforms’ reach and help smaller technology innovators get out from under the shadow of tech giants.
Gabriel Weinberg is among the most outspoken critics of the internet giants, he examined the importance of privacy way back in 2010 when he started DuckDuckGo that offers privacy-focused alternative to Google. The site has steadily grown since its inception from an average 79,000 daily searches (2010) to 38.8 million daily searches (June 2019), totalling 31 billion searches overall. Although its market share is still very small (less than 1% as compared to over 85% of Google’s), however, it has tripled over the last two years on the backs of rising focus on privacy protection and is estimated to grow even further in the coming years.
The small size of DuckDuckGo (only 65 employees), with self-funded operations (having had only two relatively small fundraising rounds of ~$13 million [which is less than what Google makes in an hour]) has not deterred its resolve. In addition, the company has been profitable in the past five years. Thus, DuckDuckGo has become a poster boy for the future where companies stand with their users (without violating their privacy) and still makes money.
DuckDuckGo makes money through advertising and affiliate revenue (sponsored links). Here, unlike other search engines, it serves contextual keyword-based ads rather than pervasively tracking users to offer personalised ads. All these advertisements are syndicated through Yahoo (part of Yahoo-Microsoft Alliance). On top of this, the company gives an option to its user to disable advertisements through settings.
The company has further expanded beyond search engines to offer privacy protection everywhere on the internet, through a plug-in which blocks invisible trackers (Google and others) and prevents users from being tracked elsewhere, while providing a privacy and security grade for every website. It is interesting to note that the plug-in gives Google’s main website a D grade as it tracks users across the web while maintaining permanent logs, which might pose a security threat.
Addedly, with the rising focus on privacy and increasing threats of privacy breaches, a host of companies have started offering services which maintain user privacy. For instance, Proton Technologies (Swiss startup) is taking on Gmail with its alternate email offering. French search engine Qwant is another company offering pro-privacy services. Further, browsers such as Firefox (enhanced tracking protection feature as a default), Safari (Apple continues to add privacy-focused features) and Brave are more focused on privacy vis-à-vis Google Chrome.
For people caring about privacy, DuckDuckGo, ‘the search engine that doesn’t track you’, is a reminder that it is possible to offer the internet services without logging every move made by users. It also offers a glimpse into what the internet would look like if companies are forced to scale back on their surveillance economy. Google, the pioneer of this surveillance capitalism has effectively been monetising every possible user data it gets hold on. Although DuckDuckGo has turned profitable on mere ‘contextual’ advertising, its success is currently at a nascent stage and also weighs on the fact that it is still extreme difficulty to sell privacy-focused services to consumers. Things might not be easy for the company in the future, though tightening of rules and regulations from various governments across the world along with changing consumer preferences is likely to have a positive impact on its business going forward. Small but important aspects that add optimism like the outcome of the recent Pew Survey, where more than half of adult Facebook users adjusted their privacy settings in light of the privacy scandals in 2018. Another recent RSA survey indicated that only 17% of Americans believe that personalised advertisements are ethical. These kinds of aspects are likely to lead to a broader change on how consumers treat and will be ready to share their data in the coming years.