Gabriel Weinberg, founder and boss at Paoli-based DuckDuckGo, testified Tuesday before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee, saying that his company could be profitable and protect consumer privacy at the same time.
DuckDuckGo, which bills itself as the search engine that “never tracks you," boasts search-triggered “contextual” instant-ad sales of more than $25 million a year, and Weinberg says it has been profitable since 2014.
Customers use DuckDuckGo’s search a billion times a month -- that’s 1 percent of the U.S. search market, compared with 89 percent for Google, says StatCounter. Google advertising and other sales last year topped $136 billion, with after-tax profits of $31 billion.
Weinberg’s testimony was, as you might expect, self-serving and promotional for DuckDuckGo. But Weinberg scored points with senators of both parties, according to their public comments, when he said his business turns a profit on mere “contextual” advertising -- without collecting customer data.
Weinberg said Americans would be happier if Congress banned or at least made it easier for consumers to block corporate data collection, adding that privacy is so popular it would also prove “good for business.”
"The American people are tired of being watched everywhere they go online. They are fed up with all the intended and unintended consequences this online tracking creates, including data breaches, invasive ads, identity theft, discrimination, and manipulation. Have you ever searched for something, only to see an ad for that very thing pop up in a mobile app, or on a different website? ...
"DuckDuckGo ... allows you to search the web without being tracked. We are the fourth largest search engine in the U.S., serving over one billion searches a month globally. We also offer a mobile privacy browser [that competes with Google Chrome]. [DuckDuckGo also pays for journalism and research on privacy issues, posted at SpreadPrivacy.com.]
"I founded DuckDuckGo in 2008, far outside of Silicon Valley, in Valley Forge, Pa. We now have a distributed workforce spread across the nation in 12 states, the District of Columbia, and in 10 other countries. ... [At DuckDuckGo] we do not even have the concept of a search history. ... Many companies run sophisticated tracker networks that lurk on the websites you visit. DuckDuckGo’s browser technology blocks such hidden trackers.
"We nonetheless are able to make money through advertising.
"When you type in a search on DuckDuckGo, we simply show you ads related to that search. If you search for car, we show you car ads. But those ads won’t follow you around because we don’t know who you are, where you’ve been, or where you go. It’s contextual advertising versus behavioral advertising. ...
"And we are not alone. ... In response to GDPR [European privacy law], when the New York Times in Europe switched from behavioral advertising to contextual advertising, it reported an increase in revenue. And just last week, Business Insider reported the Washington Post was looking into making a similar change.
"Well-drafted legislation can actually spur competition... in the online ad market, the central market in the Internet. ... Right now it’s a [Google-Facebook] duopoly and it’s hurting all kinds of businesses. ... To restore competition in the Internet, these core monopolies need to be addressed. ...
Weinberg gave three suggestions:
"Consumers should be given a real robust mechanism to opt out of data tracking. ...
"Monopoly platforms should be prohibited from combining data across their different business units. ...
"Acquisitions that strengthen the data monopoly should be prohibited. ... The internet shouldn’t feel so creepy.
During the question-and-answer session, senators led by committee chairman Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.) badgered Google general counsel Will DeVries and other corporate representatives about their data capabilities, while urging Weinberg and consumer advocates to provide their wish lists of privacy protections and corporate limits.
Defending big-Internet practices was David Hoffman, associate general counsel and global privacy officer for chipmaker Intel. He argued that many consumers “would like” more invasive “behavioral advertising” because it helps them find products they want to buy.
Weinberg said consumers “need an easier mechanism for opt out,” noting that an estimated 75 million users “have turned on Do Not Track” options embedded in common Internet browsers -- but “hardly any company in the world respects Do Not Track.”
U.S. Sen. John Kennedy (R., La.) complained that big media companies tell Americans “how we vote, what we buy.” He mock-congratulated DeVries on Google’s achieving the power of “a country, not just a company.”
U.S. Sen Chris Coons (D., Del.) tried to chart a middle course between the “benefits” of social media and the “huge risks” both of privacy lost and hurting “competitiveness and innovation.”
“Your model sounds like the way,” U.S. Sen. Richard Durbin (D., Ill.) told Weinberg.