Apple Explored DuckDuckGo As A Privacy-Based Search Engine

Unsealed court testimony in the Department of Justice’s landmark antitrust case against Google revealed that Apple held talks not only with Microsoft, but also DuckDuckGo -- not to buy DuckDuckGo, but to use its privacy search engine across Apple devices.

A key element of this trial is an agreement between Google and Apple, which paid billions of dollars annually in a revenue-share deal to make Google search the default across Apple’s devices.

Unsealed testimony from DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg tells how Apple had around 20 meetings and phone calls with DuckDuckGo to discuss making the search engine the default for Safari’s private browsing mode, according to Bloomberg.

At the time of those conversations, DuckDuckGo got much of its search information from Bing.

A statement on DuckDuckGo’s website help pages describes how the company maintains its own crawler, DuckDuckBot, and indexes to support its results, but the more traditional links and images in its search results are “largely” sourced from Bing. The goal is "to create a superior search experience.”



Apple Senior Vice President John Giannandrea said “DuckDuckGo’s reliance on Bing for search information risks sharing user information with Microsoft.” If Apple were to seriously consider changing to DuckDuckGo, Giannandrea would very likely have insisted on “doing a lot more due diligence with DuckDuckGo.”

The talks between Apple and DuckDuckGo took place between 2018 and 2019.

The latest development in the trial focuses on how Apple considered replacing Google search as the default search engine in Safari, when customers used Private Browsing mode. Bloomberg reports that Google would have remained the default in normal search queries.

Giannandrea launched DuckDuckGo fifteen years ago in September, from his basement in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, hoping to offer an alternative to Google. “Years before Snowden, a decade before Cambridge Analytica, and more broadly before the world had started to realize the scary power and creepy surveillance of companies like Google and Facebook,” he wrote in a blog post.

The company has been in a relationship with Microsoft for many years, and its website states that ad clicks are managed by Microsoft’s advertising network.

“Microsoft and DuckDuckGo have partnered to provide a search solution that delivers relevant advertisements to you while protecting your privacy,” the DuckDuckGo website states. “If you click on a Microsoft-provided ad, you will be redirected to the advertiser’s landing page through Microsoft Advertising’s platform. At that point, Microsoft Advertising will use your full IP address and user-agent string so that it can properly process the ad click and charge the advertiser.”

Apple’s interest in DuckDuckGo may reside in the search engine’s business model. Other search engines associate the ad-click behavior with a consumer profile that can be used later to target ads on that search engine or around the Internet, stated on the DuckDuckGo website. When clicking on a Microsoft-provided ad that appears on DuckDuckGo, Microsoft Advertising does not associate the ad-click behavior with a user profile or store and share that information other than for accounting purposes.

Some 87% of U.S. online adults use at least one privacy- or security-protecting tool online, according to Forrester Research. 

Here’s a way to make sense of what Apple might see in a search like DuckDuckGo, despite it having privacy stopgaps and search features of its own. DuckDuckGo’s products started as a lone search engine. Now the company offers free, mobile and desktop browser with a private search engine built-in, along with more than a dozen other tracking protection.

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