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In 2008 I heard about a funky new search engine called DuckDuckGo, took one glance, and predicted it would die a quick death. After all, back then Google was on the rise and the fields of tech were littered with the wreckage of rival search engines, like starships shot out of the sky. How could a new one succeed? (And with a name like that?)
Worse, DuckDuckGo’s business model was paddling against the current. Its central feature was a commitment to privacy: Its code wouldn’t track you at all. A delightful idea, to be sure! But it seemed like financial suicide when all other tech giants—Google and the ascendant Twitter and Facebook—were racing in the opposite direction to build surveillance-capitalist tools for scraping together as much data as possible about you. “Big Data” was the turtle-necked catchphrase of tech conferences, and tech CEOs promised that feasting upon your every activity—and personalizing their services—would produce an epic win-win. You would get search results (or social media feeds) tweaked for precisely your interests; they could offer advertisers laser-guided targeting. Those hippies over at DuckDuckGo? Adorable business model, folks. Good luck.
More than a decade on, DuckDuckGo has made boatloads of dough. It became profitable in 2014 and stayed that way.
Last year, the company’s traffic more than doubled. It has done this with no creepy surveillance: All it does is use whatever keywords you type in the search bar—“best inkjet printer,” “Boston hotels”—to customize an ad for that search. This is known as “contextual” targeting, distinct from the secret-police “behavioral” tracking that fuels advertising on many tech platforms and creates a mammoth dossier of your online activity. DuckDuckGo doesn’t even retain your search info. Every time you load the search engine, you’re a stranger.
“We questioned the assumption: Do you really need to track people to make money in advertising? And our answer is no,” Gabriel Weinberg, DuckDuckGo’s founder and CEO, tells me. Part of the company’s success, he notes, is that a significant chunk of people want more privacy. A Pew Research Center study found that 81 percent of Americans think the downsides of data tracking outweigh the benefits.
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