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Thursday, July 11, 2013

NSA scandal delivers record numbers of internet users to DuckDuckGo

                                 Gabriel Weinberg, the founder of DuckDuckGo
Web-users who want to protect their privacy have been switching to a small unheard of search engine in the wake of the 'Prism' revelations.

DuckDuckGo, the little known U.S. company, sets itself aside from its giant competitors such as Google and Yahoo, by not sharing any of its clients' data with searched websites. 

This means no targeted advertising and no skewed search results.

Aside from the reduced ads, this unbiased and private approach to using the internet is appealing to users angered at the news that U.S. and UK governments (the National Security Agency (NSA) in the U.S. and GCHQ in the UK), have direct access to the servers of big search engine companies, allowing them to 'watch' users.

Within just two weeks of the NSA's operations being leaked by former employee Edward Snowden, DuckDuckGo's traffic had doubled - from serving 1.7million searches a day, to 3million.

'We started seeing an increase right when the story broke, before we were covered in the press,' said Gabriel Weinberg, founder and CEO, speaking to The Guardian.

Entrepreneur Mr Weinberg had the idea for the company in 2006,  while taking time out to do a stained-glass making course. He had just sold successful start-up Opobox, similar to Friends Reunited, for $10million (£6.76million) to

While on the course he realised that the teacher's 'useful web links' did not tally up with Google's search results, and realised the extent of the personalised skewing of results per user.

From there he had the idea to develop a 'better' search engine, that does not share any user information with any websites whatsoever.

Search data, he told the paper, 'is arguably the most personal data people are entering into anything. You're typing in your problems, your desires. It's not the same as things you post publicly on a social network.'

DuckDuckGo, named after an American children's tag game Duck Duck Goose (though not a metaphor), was solo-founded by Mr Weinberg in 2008, in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.

He self-funded it until 2011 when Union Square Ventures, which also backs Twitter, Tumblr, Foursquare and Kickstarter, and a handful of angel investors, came on board.
The team  has expanded to a few full-time people, many part-time contributors and a bunch of open-source contributors.
'If you're wondering how you would turn that into a verb...Duck it!' he says on the company website.

The 33-year-old CEO, who lives in Paoli, a suburb of Philadelphia, PA, with his wife and two children, explains that when other search engines are used, your search terms are sent to that site you clicked on; this sharing of information is known as 'search leakage'.

'For example, when you search for something private, you are sharing that private search not only with your search engine, but also with all the sites that you clicked on (for that search),' he points out on his website.

'In addition, when you visit any site, your computer automatically sends information about it to that site (including your User agent and IP address). This information can often be used to identify you directly.

'So when you do that private search, not only can those other sites know your search terms, but they can also know that you searched it. It is this combination of available information about you that raises privacy concerns,' he says.

The company offers a search engine, like Google, but which does not traffic users, which has less spam and clutter, that showcases 'better instant answers', and that does not put users in a 'filter bubble' meaning results are biased towards particular users.

Currently, 50 per cent of DuckDuckGo's users are from the U.S., 45 per cent from Europe and the remaining 5 per cent from Asia-Pacific (APAC).

On June 3, the company reported it had more than 19million direct queries per month and the zero-click Info API gets over 9million queries per day.

It has partnerships with apps, browsers and distributions that include DuckDuckGo as a search option: 

Browsers, distributions, iOS, and Android. Companies can use DuckDuckGo for their site search, and the firm offers an open API for Instant Answers based on its open source DuckDuckHack platform.

Speaking on U.S. radio channel, American Public Media, Mr Weinberg said: 'Companies like DuckDuckGo have sprung in the last couple years to cater to the growing number of data dodgers.

'There’s pent up demand for companies that do not track you,' he says.

User feedback on the company website say the search engine reminds them of the early days of using Google; it's like an 'honorable search site to complement Wikipedia'; and other are 'amazed' that a search engine company is 'doing exactly the right thing'.

Critics of the company remain cautious of the sudden surge in success, however, pointing out that 3million searches per day is just a 'drop in the ocean' compared with the 13billion searches Google does every day.

Writing on his website, Danny Sullivan, who runs the Search Engine Land site and analyses the industry, said big companies like and Yahoo had tried pro-privacy pushes before and failed to generate huge interest.

Perhaps in the wake of the NSA and GCHQ revelations, however, users may think twice about their search engine provider.

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