IndustrySomething to hide? The rise of privacy-focused search engines

Something to hide? The rise of privacy-focused search engines

In this editorial from Marc Smith, founder of Mojeek, argues that alternative, privacy-focused search engines have an opportunity in this post-truth era

Many people are comfortable opening up their world to others, some are not. This can even extend to the use of the Internet; some feel uneasy at the thought of somebody watching and analyzing every move to build a profile. And ultimately, when users believe this to be the case, they self-censor and think twice about what they search for and how to word it.

In the past the usual question would have been, “what do I have to hide?”. Surprisingly for some (disappointingly for others), the answer is often quite straightforward and benign. For me, it’s simply because I prefer to keep myself to myself, which helps to eliminate a feeling of shyness and preserve the energy it would have otherwise consumed.

Times are changing

The major search engines have increasingly pushed the envelope on user privacy, often expanding their surveillance by stating it somewhere deep within the terms of service. Many, often non-technical, individuals may be completely unaware of the scope and scale of data mining happening on an individual’s behavior.

Still, the majority of people continue to sacrifice some of their privacy in order to use free services such as Google. This is understandable as Google remains top in search, but that is changing. A growing number of people are starting to wonder where to draw the line; what is acceptable and what is too invasive? At what point do they no longer feel comfortable with the level of intrusion that comes with using these ‘free’ services. More people are therefore seeking out alternatives that respect their privacy.

This has led to the rise of search engines such as DuckDuckGo, StartPage and Mojeek. These search engines not only provide ‘privacy as a service‘, but also burst ‘filter bubbles‘ that use online tracking to target and customize results and content. Without tracking, these bubbles are burst and you are shown content based on what you looked for and not your previous history. This helps to prevent confirmation bias.

Enough is enough

The Snowden leaks, Cambridge Analytica, advertising that follows you everywhere, filter bubbles, advertising/search companies bypassing your phone’s security to more thoroughly track you, personalized pricing based on a profile – where will it end?

It would appear these companies have no real intention to change their ways. If the past is anything to go by then these stories are only going to continue. It will only be stopped by regulation or people saying enough is enough, voting with their clicks, and choosing an alternative that sees and treats them as a customer, and not a product.

Perhaps we’ll reach a crunch point and there will be a max exodus from these companies, or maybe just enough people to allow healthy competition to flourish. Hopefully this will give rise to a whole new wave of companies that put the people who use them first, and their privacy at the forefront of everything they do.

And where better to start than with search – an activity everyone participates in and which is increasingly seen as the gateway (and unfortunately in some cases, the gatekeepers) to the Internet.

I hope this happens sooner rather than later, and that the option to choose the type of service and company we keep remains. If we all ‘just Google it’, sooner or later we’ll have to.


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