Sometimes i really am wrong.
In 2008, I heard about an awesome new search engine called DuckDuckGo, glanced up and predicted he would die quickly. After all, at the time, Google was on the rise and the tech fields were littered with rival wreckage. search engine, like spaceships shot from the sky. How could a new one succeed? (And with a name like that?)
Worse yet, DuckDuckGo’s business model was paddling against the tide. Its central feature was a commitment to privacy: its code would not follow you at all. A delicious idea, of course! But it looked like financial suicide when all the other tech giants – Google and the ascendant Twitter and Facebook – rushed in the opposite direction to create capitalist surveillance tools to gather as much data as possible on you. “Big Data” was the turtleneck slogan at tech conferences, and tech CEOs promised that feasting on every one of your activities – and personalizing their services – would produce an epic win-win situation. You will get search results (or social media feeds) tailored precisely to your interests; they could offer advertisers laser-guided targeting. Those hippies at DuckDuckGo? Adorable business model, folks. Good luck.
Over a decade later, DuckDuckGo made shipments of dough. It became profitable in 2014 and has stayed that way.
Last year, the company’s traffic more than doubled. It did it scary unsupervised: it just uses the keywords you type in the search bar – “best inkjet printer”, “Boston hotels” – to personalize an ad for that search . This is called “contextual” targeting, distinct from the secret police “behavioral” tracking that fuels advertising on many technology platforms and creates a gigantic record of your online activity. DuckDuckGo doesn’t even keep your research information. Every time you load the search engine you are a stranger.
“We challenged the hypothesis: do you really need to follow people to make money from advertising? And our answer is no, ”Gabriel Weinberg, founder and CEO of DuckDuckGo tells me. Part of the company’s success, he notes, is that a significant number of people want more privacy. A study by the Pew Research Center found that 81% of Americans believe the downsides of tracking data outweigh the benefits.
Indeed, DuckDuckGo’s success suggests, more trenchantly, that much of Silicon Valley’s business argument about data collection is downright bogus. They say they have to do it to produce compelling products: personalizing their merchandise helps us stay “engaged” to the fullest, and therefore raise advertising funds. Yet here is a tech company that has shied away from practicing surveillance capitalism; it just works ordinary capitalism.
By now, the downsides of hyper-personalization are well known, especially in Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube feeds – filter bubbles, bias, wild-eyed disinfo. Social media obviously isn’t directly comparable to search, but when you see Weinberg’s success, it begs a question: Was all this personalization and tracking necessary in the first place?
“A lot of companies could still be fairly profitable if they took this route,” Weinberg says. “They can be a little less profitable. But you know, it’s like – is that extra profit worth all that impact and societal issues? We do not think so. Even some ad buyers wonder if endless tracking works; a survey by Digiday found that 45% of ad executives saw “no significant benefit” from behavioral tracking, and 23% found it generated revenue. decline.
The techlash of the past few years has shed light on the misdeeds of technology, and the filthy stuff it exposes sometimes makes you think, Dude, modern technology is a curse! But in DuckDuckGo’s success, we can see that our situation stems less from qua tech technology – the mere existence of microprocessors, fiber optic cables, and code – than technological business models.
Breaking out of surveillance-driven business models will not be easy. We could develop public policies to make it harder to collect personal data, like Shoshana Zuboff, author of The era of surveillance capitalism, suggests. Or we could break big tech monopolies into small businesses that actually have to compete with each other, making them more likely to deliver what customers actually want, as Senator Elizabeth Warren argues.
Either solution requires lawmakers to act forcefully against powerful corporations, which is not a given. It’s worth the pressure, however. Today’s scary business models have normalized in Silicon Valley. If we want more businesses to follow DuckDuckGo’s path, they need all the help they can get.
If you buy something using links in our stories, we may earn a commission. It helps support our journalism. Learn more.
More WIRED stories