DuckDuckGo: Better Instant Answers, Less Spam & Clutter, Real Privacy

I’ve started using DuckDuckGo instead of Google, because DuckDuckGo doesn’t track users or tamper with their search results.

I quit using Google for Internet searches a couple of months ago.

I did that because of yet another story in the tech press about Google customizing search results to each user. In a nutshell, what Google does — and has been doing for years — is build a detailed profile of each user’s search history, and try very hard to prioritize search results based on what it thinks that user likes. Why Google thinks this is a good idea is deeply unclear to me — the whole point of searching for information is to find things I didn’t know and haven’t seen before.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that tampering with search results to show different things to different people is manipulative. It offends me and makes me suspicious of Google’s motives.

Futhermore, Google (and the other tech giants, Apple, Yahoo, Microsoft, and most especially Facebook) make a great deal of their money by tracking and profiling their users. As my favorite security expert, Bruce Schneier, put it, “[t]he primary business model of the Internet is built on mass surveillance…” A lot of people seem concerned about the NSA spying on innocent citizens, yet many fewer people seem concerned when Google and Facebook do the same thing. I am puzzled by that reaction, because in my experience corporations are generally not more trustworthy than the government. And, the same Bruce Schneier article I quoted previously points out that a lot of the government spying is done by obtaining users’ profile data from tech companies. Google, Facebook, and Yahoo are handing over those detailed profiles they’ve built to the government on demand, even though it would be illegal for the government to collect that data itself.

In the Internet age, I firmly believe that we users should defend our privacy as much as possible. Anything we read can be used against us — to charge us higher prices and harass us with annoying advertisements, certainly. But think about the power that Google has. Tampering with search results is like changing the books on the library shelves before a patron walks in. It reminds me of the novel Fahrenheit 451, but much more subtle and insidious. Remember the power newspaper moguls of the early twentieth century wielded, and ask yourself: are Google and the other tech giants better citizens than that?

To replace the empty space where Google used to be, I’ve found DuckDuckGo. It’s a search engine whose business model is not based on mass surveillance, and who doesn’t tamper with your search results — it shows the same results to everyone. DuckDuckGo’s Web site does a much better job of explaining this than I have time to do. It explains why it’s against our interests to be tracked and why customized search results are a detriment, not a benefit. It also explains how they can possibly make money while bucking the surveillance trend. You can add it to your browser as a search plugin: here’s the one for Firefox.

Another alternative is to just use Wikipedia as your search engine of first recourse, and use the external sites linked on the Wikipedia page to get to authoritative sources. This works pretty well for finding hard, factual information. Back in the 1990s, this was called “surfing the web,” and it’s what everybody did to find everything before Google came along. There were search engines then, but they were terrible: they gave different results every time you searched, and always left out a lot of relevant pages. The more things change, the more they stay the same.