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Is DuckDuckGo Search & Browser Really Private?

By Abdullah AttaMay 27, 2022
Photo by Dawit on Unsplash

On May 23, 2022, Zach Edwards tweeted about the apparent hole in DuckDuckGo browsers which permitted Microsoft trackers to function unhindered. This had nothing to do with DuckDuckGo search and to be fair the controversy around this matter was blown way out of context. DuckDuckGo's CEO & Founder, Gabriel Weinberg, very passionately shattered all the false claims around the misunderstood tweet. But privacy is all about trust and if a privacy-focused company is found to be deliberately compromising on users' privacy in one of their products, the implications eventually spread out.

For the confused, due to a contract with Bing, DuckDuckGo cannot block 3rd-party Microsoft trackers on 3rd-party websites in the DuckDuckGo browser. For example, DuckDuckGo browser won't block Microsoft trackers on the New York Times website (if it exists there).

Is this bad? Yes and here's why.

Privacy is about trust

Even though DuckDuckGo browser & search are very different, the company & people behind them are the same. What does it mean for a company to be hand-tied in one of their products when it comes to privacy? It implies a severe weakness in all of their products: their dependence on Microsoft.

The question then changes to is it possible that DuckDuckGo will be forced (via a contract by Microsoft) to allow Microsoft tracking in their search? And suddenly it all starts looking worse and worse.

Brave reports 10+ trackers on DuckDuckGo search
Brave reports 10+ trackers on DuckDuckGo search

It's not important that DuckDuckGo doesn't do this currently. Even the fact that it doesn't block Microsoft trackers on 3rd party websites is unimportant. What's important is the reason why they do what they do & why they can't stop. Which brings us to...

Privacy is about independence

When DuckDuckGo launched, it was hyped as the privacy-focused alternative to Google & Bing. A lot of people migrated to DuckDuckGo & a lot of people still use it but DuckDuckGo wasn't the first (or the last) search engine to offer privacy focused interface to Bing or Google. StartPage, founded in 2006, used Google as their underlying search engine similar to how DuckDuckGo used Bing.

Is a search engine still private if it depends on one of the most privacy invasive search engines around? Perhaps. But launching a competing service that heavily relies on a rival for their core functionality is a time bomb.

All this isn't done in secret i.e., there are legal contracts between companies (Google & StartPage; Microsoft & DuckDuckGo) which allows DuckDuckGo to use Bing's search index. This puts a huge shadow on these privacy focused search engines. They cannot grow independently and while promoting privacy & freedom, these very services are bound by legal contracts to act otherwise.

There is no privacy or freedom if you are not independent:

  1. Can DuckDuckGo exist without Bing? No.
  2. Does Bing decide what to show me when I search on DuckDuckGo? In a way, yes.
  3. Even though DuckDuckGo provides a filter between me & Bing, how impenetrable actually is that filter?

It doesn't matter if I am not directly being "coerced" by Bing. As long as I use DuckDuckGo it's essentially the same thing because Microsoft can (and does) coerce DuckDuckGo. Which brings us to...

Privacy is about financial freedom

DuckDuckGo's main source of revenue is search ads (like Google) which are Bing search ads. They cannot be profitable if they cut ties with Bing but it also means that Bing, and therefore Microsoft, controls their revenue stream and their business.

In their own words:

Microsoft and DuckDuckGo have partnered to provide a search solution that delivers relevant advertisements to you while protecting your privacy. If you click on a Microsoft-provided ad, you will be redirected to the advertiser’s landing page through Microsoft Advertising’s platform. At that point, Microsoft Advertising will use your full IP address and user-agent string so that it can properly process the ad click and charge the advertiser.Ads by Microsoft on DuckDuckGo Private Search

Bing search ad on DuckDuckGo
Bing search ad on DuckDuckGo

This means that DuckDuckGo cannot make decisions that directly (or negatively) impact Bing or Microsoft. In other words, DuckDuckGo exists as long as Microsoft allows it to exist.

Conclusion

The fact of the matter is, Microsoft holds almost all the cards here and that's bad news if you care about privacy. This new controversy only makes DuckDuckGo's position weaker, no matter how passionately Gabriel goes about defending DuckDuckGo.

I don't trust Microsoft and consequentially I can't trust DuckDuckGo. I migrated to Brave Search when they launched their Beta and haven't looked back since. I love that they are independent both in terms of revenue & functionality.

#privacy
Abdullah Atta
Abdullah AttaLead developer of Notesnook