Gabriel Weinberg didn’t start off as a privacy warrior. The 33-year-old founder and CEO of DuckDuckGo just wanted to build a better search engine, something more useful than Google which, he believed, was “becoming bogged down by spam and irrelevant search results.”
Along the way, Weinberg was confronted with the decision about what to do with his users’ search information.
“Honestly, privacy wasn’t a motivation at all when I started the company,” Weinberg said in an interview from his Philadelphia-area headquarters. “But shortly after I launched DuckDuckGo, people in the tech community who used the site started asking me questions about privacy. So I stopped what I was doing and began a personal investigation into the history of search privacy.”
What Weinberg found surprised him.
“If you think about it, a search engine is the first place you go if you have a serious problem, like a medical diagnosis. People type in their problems. It’s kind of creepy for a search engine to know so much about you.”
“I also found that users’ search histories were being handed over to government and law enforcement agencies. And beyond the government, there’s a commercial equivalent of mass surveillance that people find annoying. Think of all the ads following you around the Internet and targeting you all the time. There’s even stuff a lot of people don’t know about yet like companies charging you higher prices based on your data profile, which shows that you shop in higher end stores. If you can believe it, you can sit right next to someone, go to the same website and get a different quoted price for an item!”
‘It’s kind of creepy for a search engine to know so much about you’
As a result of what he learned, Weinberg’s search engine doesn’t keep any personally identifiable information. DuckDuckGo doesn’t identify users with cookies, and deletes user agents and IP addresses from its server logs. According to its privacy page, the site doesn’t attempt to generate a so-called anonymized identifier to tie searches together. In other words, DuckDuckGo has no way of even knowing whether two searches came from the same computer.
“My whole thing was, ‘How do you make a better search experience?’ My thought was you don’t need to track people to make money in web search. And you don’t need to track people to make better results. So why track people at all?”
Founded in 2008, DuckDuckGo limped along for its first few years with a small but dedicated clientele. It was attracting less than one million searches a day until January 2012, when Google announced plans to aggregate user data across all of its services. Almost immediately, the site’s web traffic spiked. But DuckDuckGo’s popularity exploded earlier this summer in the aftermath of revelations about the US National Security Agency’s secret Prism surveillance program.
‘You don’t need to track people to make money in web search. And you don’t need to track people to make better results. So why track people at all?’
According to leaked details about Prism, the NSA is said to have direct access to the servers of the Internet’s biggest search engines – Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.
When asked what impact the scandal had on DuckDuckGo’s traffic, Weinberg said, “A lot.”
“We’re close to double the traffic to where we were before the NSA news cycle,” he said. “We were hovering around 1.8 million searches a day and now we’re up to 3 million.”
But Weinberg believes it’s more than just an interest in privacy that is bringing people to his search engine.
“In addition to great privacy, the site gets you great results. Less clutter and less spam.”
Weinberg had the idea for a new search engine when, around 2006, he noticed more and more people going directly to sites like Wikipedia, IMDB and Yelp for information.
“My thought was, ‘People are bypassing search engines altogether because those companies created awesome sets of answers over time by dedicated communities of people. This search engine aggregates these answers and puts them above traditional answers.”
If DuckDuckGo sounds like something conceived in the Tel Aviv high-tech corridor, it’s wholly an American creation. Weinberg, who holds a BA and MS from MIT, has never been to Israel but jokingly acknowledges that he’s a distant relative to the founder of the Israeli technology giant, CheckPoint. He says he would very much like to visit the Jewish state, but most travel plans are on hold until his two young sons are older.
Despite the buzz surrounding the site and Weinberg’s growing list of media appearances, DuckDuckGo’s 3 million daily searches pale in comparison to the 13 billion Google searches conducted each day. And even though Americans claim to be concerned about search privacy, there has been little or no change in their online habits following the NSA revelations.
But Weinberg is confident that, as people become more familiar with surveillance technology, they will make his site their primary search engine, and stay there.