8 min read

On the latest Recode Decode episode, Kara Swisher (co-founder) interviewed DuckDuckGo CEO, Gabriel Weinberg on data tracking and why it’s time for Congress to act now as federal legislation is necessary in the current scenario of constant surveillance.

DuckDuckGo is an Internet search engine that emphasizes on protecting searchers’ privacy. Its market share in the U.S. is about 1%, as compared to more than 88% share owned by Google.

Given below are some of the key highlights of the interview.

On how DuckDuckGo is different from Google

DuckDuckGo which is a internet privacy company, helps users’ to “escape the creepiness and tracking on the internet”. DuckDuckGo has been an alternative to Google since 11 years. It has about a billion searches a month and is the fourth-largest search engine in the U.S. Weinberg states that “Google and Facebook are the largest traders of trackers”, and claims that his company blocks trackers from hundreds of companies. DuckDuckGo also enables more encryption as they force users to go to the unencrypted version of a website. This prevents Internet Service Providers(ISPs)  from tracking the user.

When asked the reason for settling into the ‘search business’, Weinberg replied that being from a tech background (tech policy from MIT), he has always been interested in search. After developing this business, he got many privacy queries. It’s then that he realized that, “One, searches are essentially the most private thing on the internet. You just type in all your deepest, darkest secrets and search, right? The second thing is, you don’t need to actually track people to make money on search,” so he realized that this would be a better user experience, and just made the decision not to track people.”

Read More: DuckDuckGo chooses to improve its products without sacrificing user privacy

The switch from contextual advertising to behavioral advertising

From the time internet started working till mid-2000s, the kind of advertising used is called as contextual advertising. It had a very simple routine, “sites used to sell their own ads, they would put advertising based on the content of the article”. Post mid-2000, the working shifted to behavioral advertising. It includes the “creepy ads, the ones that kind of follow you around the internet.” Weinberg added that when website publishers in the Google Network of content sites used to sell their biggest inventory, banner advertising was done at the top of the page. To explore more money, the bottom of the pages was sold to ad networks, to target the site content and audience. These advertisements are administered, sorted, and maintained by Google, under the name AdSense. This helped Google to get all the behavioral data. So if a user searched for something, Google can follow them around with that search. As these advertisements became more lucrative, publishers ceded most of their page over to this behavioral advertising. There has been “no real regulation in tech” to prevent this.

Through these trackers, companies like Google and Facebook and many others get user information and browsing history, including purchase history, location history, browsing history, search history, and even user location.

Read More: Ireland’s Data Protection Commission initiates an inquiry into Google’s online Ad Exchange services

Read More: Advocacy groups push FTC to fine Facebook and break it up for repeatedly violating the consent order and unfair business practices

Weinberg informs that, “when you go to, now, a website that has advertising from one of these networks, there’s a real-time bidding against you, as a person. There’s an auction to sell you an ad based on all this creepy information you didn’t even realize people captured”

People do ‘care about privacy’

Weinberg says that “before you knew about it, you were okay with it because you didn’t realize it was so invasive, but after Cambridge Analytica and all the stories about the tracking, that number just keeps going up and up and up.”

He also explained about the setting “do not track”, which is available in most of the privacy settings of the browser. He says “People are like, ‘No one ever goes into settings and looks at privacy.’ That’s not true. Literally, tens of millions of Americans have gone into their browser settings and checked this thing. So, people do care!”. Weinberg believes ‘do not track’ is a better mechanism for privacy laws, because once the user makes the setting, no more popups will be allowed i.e., no more sites can track you. He also hopes that the ‘do not track’ mechanism is passed by Congress as it will allow all the people in the country to not being tracked.

On challenging Google

One main issue faced by DuckDuckGo is that not many people are aware of it. Weinberg says, “There’s 20 percent of people that we think would be interested in switching to DuckDuckGo, but it’s hard to convey all these privacy concepts.” He also claimed that companies like Google are altering people’s searches through ‘filter bubble’. As an example, he added, “when you search, you expect to get the results right? But we found that it varies a lot by location”. Last year, DuckDuckGo had accused Google, that their search personalization contributes to “filter bubbles”.

In 2012, DuckDuckGo ran a study showing Google’s filter bubble may have significantly influenced the 2012 U.S. Presidential election by inserting tens of millions of more links for Obama than for Romney in the run-up to that election.

Read More: DeepMind researchers provide theoretical analysis on recommender system, ‘echo chamber’ and ‘filter bubble effect’

How to prevent online tracking

Other than using DuckDuckGo and not using say, any of Google’s internet home devices, Swisher asked Weinberg, what are other ways to protect ourselves from being tracked online. To this, Weinberg says there are plenty of other options available. He suggested, “For Google, there are actually alternatives in every category.” For emails, he suggested ProtonMail, FastMail as options. When asked about Facebook, he admitted that “there aren’t great alternatives to it” and added cheekily, “Just leave it”.

He further added that there are a bunch of privacy settings available in the devices themselves. He also mentioned about DuckDuckGo blog spreadprivacy.com which provides advice tips. Also there are things which users can do, like turning off ad tracking in the device or to use an end-to-end encryption.

On Facial recognition system

Weinberg says “Facial recognition is hard”. A person can wear any minor thing to avoid getting caught on the camera. He admits, “you’re going to need laws” to regulate the use of it and thinks San Francisco started a great trend in banning the technology.

Many other points were also discussed by Swisher and Weinberg, which included the Communications Decency Act 230 to control sensitive data on the internet. Weinberg also asserted that there’s a need for a national bill like GDPR in the U.S. There were also questions raised on Amazon’s growing advertisements through Google and Facebook. Weinberg also dismissed the probability of having a DuckDuckGo for YouTube anytime soon.

Many users agree with Gabriel Weinberg that we should opt into data tracking and it is time to make ‘Do not track’ the norm.

A user on Hacker News commented, “Discounting Internet by axing privacy is a nasty idea. Privacy should be available by default without any added price tags.”

Another user added, “In addition to not stalking you across the web, DDG also does not store data on you even when using their products directly. For me that is still cause for my use of DDG.”

However, as mentioned by Weinberg, there are still people who do not mind being tracked online. It can be because they are not aware of the big trades that takes place behind a user’s one click.

A user on Reddit has given an apt basis for this,  “Privacy matters to people at home, but not online, for some reason. I think because it hasn’t been transparent, and isn’t as obvious as a person looking in your windows. That slowly seems to be changing as more of these concerns are making the news, more breaches, more scandals.

You can argue the internet is “wandering outside”, which is true to some degree, but it doesn’t feel that way. It feels private, just you and your computer/phone, but it’s not.

What we experience is not matching up with reality. That is what’s dangerous/insidious about the whole thing.

People should be able to choose when to make themselves “public”, and you largely can’t because it’s complicated and obfuscated.”

For more details about their conversation, check out the full interview.

Read Next

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‘Facial Recognition technology is faulty, racist, biased, abusive to civil rights; act now to restrict misuse’ say experts to House Oversight and Reform Committee

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