Online privacy: DuckDuckGo just finished a banner year and looks for an even better 2022

Commentary: The privacy-oriented search engine keeps winning fans. Will it spur Google to improve its own privacy?

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Image: Ascannio/Shutterstock

It's unclear how many people deeply care about their online data. After all, Facebook (hardly a paragon of protecting privacy) boasts 2.89 billion daily active users. And Facebook isn't alone in this – it just happens to be above average in the scale and scope of how it leverages personal data to sell ads/drive engagement. 

And yet, DuckDuckGo. The privacy-oriented search engine netted more than 35 billion search queries in 2021, a 46.4% jump over 2020 (23.6 billion). That's big. Even so, the company, which bills itself as the "Internet privacy company," offering a search engine and other products designed to "empower you to seamlessly take control of your personal information online without any tradeoffs," remains a rounding error compared to Google in search. 

Whether it remains a highly successful (and profitable) rounding error, however, could depend on how serious we become about the privacy of our searches.

SEE: Report: SMBs are unprepared to tackle data privacy (TechRepublic Premium)

"I have nothing to hide"

Take me, for example. I'm pretty boring. Though I've been known to scour the dark side of the web to unearth improbable Arsenal transfer rumors (we're getting Mbappe!), there's really nothing that I do online, or that I search for, that I'd mind anyone else seeing. No porn. No illegal downloading of movies or music (though I admit I once dabbled while waiting for the right to pay to stream …). Super staid.

Which is not to say I wouldn't prefer anonymity. 

I, like you, search for things all the time that aren't me. I may want to know, for example, the survival rates of a certain kind of cancer, but that's because a friend has it. It's not a topic that I want ads about. My wife will sometimes mention an actor, and I almost never know who they are. So I look them up. But I have about a nanosecond's worth of interest in the topic. I don't want that going on my "permanent record," as it were. And so on. Much of what I, and you, search for is just random ephemera. 

But Google builds a dossier using those searches (and other online activities, including email), all in the name of serving up "relevant ads." That idea of "relevance" is nonsense, as DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg has argued: "Almost all of the money search engines make (including Google) is based on the keywords you type in, without knowing anything about you, including your search history or the seemingly endless amounts of additional data points they have collected about registered and non-registered users alike." 

Our personal data is not actually worth much … to others. "Your own data is worthless — it only has value in the aggregate of millions," analyst Benedict Evans said. Still, while it's not worth much to others, it's worthwhile to me to keep things private. 

DuckDuckGo's rising success suggests that plenty of people agree and are actually doing something about it.

Not paying for privacy

A recent Washington Post-Schar School study found that most Americans (73%) think tech companies collecting private user data for advertising is "unjustified." More than half (57%) are doing more than grumbling: They're taking action like changing privacy settings on websites or their phone apps. 

And some are using DuckDuckGo.

SEE: If you're serious about privacy, it's time to use DuckDuckGo as your default Android browser (TechRepublic)

That "some" amounted to a daily average of 100 million search queries each day in 2021. That's up from an average of 79 million per day in 2020. A recent DuckDuckGo survey found that 27 million Americans (9%) use DuckDuckGo. That's impressive. 

The company is now pushing well beyond search (even while improving basic search with revamped search results, among other things) to enable things like email protection ("free email forwarding service that removes trackers in your email and protects the privacy of your personal email address"), app tracking protection ("a new feature in our Android app that blocks third-party trackers like Google and Facebook lurking in other apps") and more. 

Because of this growing reputation for protecting privacy, DuckDuckGo is now the most downloaded browsing app on Android in its major markets like the U.S., and second only to Chrome on iOS. Apparently people do care about privacy. It's still too soon to call this a trend, yet DuckDuckGo's success suggests something substantial is happening. No, it's not going to unseat Google anytime soon. Maybe, like Firefox before it, DuckDuckGo will simply spur Google to improve Chrome (or, in this case, improve the privacy features of Google Search). Time will tell, but if 2022 is anything like 2021, DuckDuckGo's success may prompt action from Google sooner rather than later.

Disclosure: I work for MongoDB, but the views expressed herein are mine

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