Have you ever heard the adage that if something you use is free, you’re the product?
Issues of internet privacy are all over the news, and for good reason. The last several years have shown how using people’s personal information can be used to target shoppers, manipulate voters, and even incite conflict.
For most of us, the upshot is just that any online software you log into is probably keeping data about you and that this data can be used to get you to do things you might not otherwise do, whether that’s to buy a product, stay online a little longer, or go to an event.
It’s big business: Just Google and Facebook together netted over $230 billion in ad revenue in 2020. These platforms provide advertisers the ability to target advertising to specific demographic audiences, including age groups, interests, political affiliation, gender, websites visited, and more– meaning that different groups see ads that are “relevant” to them (but, also, more likely to move them to action).
Often, this means that search results we see are even tailored to algorithms that those platforms have designed for us. That means that we don’t each see the same results that someone else might when we look at our feeds or even when we search for the same things. They do it with our permission– it’s in those Terms and Conditions screens most of us bop through when we create profiles on different platforms.
Some see all this as a great advertising efficiency: Advertisers don’t waste the time of people who won’t be interested in a product or service. Others see it as annoying or a little creepy. (Ever visited a website and then had their ads haunt you for a month afterward?) Still others see it as a paid violation of their privacy.
Whatever camp you’re in, the situation raises the fundamental question: Do I want my personality and interests to be a commodity that others can buy, sell, or use as a lever to get me to do things? For those who say “no,” there are alternatives to those services we’re used to. One of these is DuckDuckGo, a search engine built with privacy in mind.
DuckDuckGo isn’t new; they’ve been in business since 2008, and they’ve seen huge usage gains over the years. Still, DDG measures its annual searches in the billions, while Google measures in the trillions.
You might find yourself looking back to that opening axiom and wondered whether you aren’t somehow still DuckDuckGo’s product. Answer: Sort of. DuckDuckGo does make its money through advertising. The difference is that their advertising is targeted only based on the search terms someone types in as opposed to that PLUS individual users’ data collected daily from billions of clicks.
Because DDG doesn’t track users, they don’t know how many people actually use their site, but at the time of this article, they estimated that around 50 million users currently search using their engine (based on the raw number of searches performed).