DuckDuckGo founder says Google’s phone and manufacturing partnerships thwart competition

by Madison Thomas
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Antitrust Trial

In the most significant antitrust trial witnessed in a quarter-century, Gabriel Weinberg, the founder of DuckDuckGo, appeared as a witness on Thursday. Weinberg testified that his small search engine company faced formidable challenges competing with Google due to the tech giant’s partnerships with phone companies and equipment manufacturers, which allowed Google to establish its product as the default search option on numerous devices.

In the U.S. District Court in Washington, Weinberg remarked, “We encountered a significant hurdle with Google’s contracts.” The U.S. Department of Justice’s argument revolves around Google’s alleged stifling of competition through financial agreements with companies like Apple and Verizon, effectively securing its search engine as the default choice on many laptops and smartphones. Google counters this by asserting its dominance in the internet search market stems from the superior quality of its product.

Google further contends that users can easily switch to alternative search engines, even when it holds the default position on devices. However, Weinberg’s testimony highlighted the complexities involved in persuading users to switch from Google. He stated that it required as many as 30 to 50 steps to change defaults on all their devices, whereas a streamlined process of just one click on each device would significantly simplify the transition. “The search defaults are the primary barrier,” he emphasized. “It’s too many steps.”

Gabriel Weinberg, a graduate of MIT, founded DuckDuckGo in his Pennsylvania basement in 2008. The company distinguished itself by prioritizing user privacy, pledging not to track users’ search queries or online activities, which can be exploited to create detailed user profiles and intrusive advertisements, as Weinberg noted.

According to internal surveys conducted by DuckDuckGo, privacy emerged as the foremost concern among users, surpassing their quest for the best search results. Despite this commitment to privacy, DuckDuckGo still engages in advertising but adopts a unique approach known as “contextual advertising,” tailoring ads based on users’ real-time search queries.

DuckDuckGo’s dedication to privacy drew more users, particularly in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations regarding online surveillance and the subsequent Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal, which exposed the unscrupulous sharing of personal data among data brokers.

Although DuckDuckGo is privately held and does not disclose its financial details, it has indicated that it has been profitable for several years and generates over $100 million in annual revenue. However, this pales in comparison to the financial might of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which reported a staggering $283 billion in revenue the previous year.

Despite its commitment to user privacy, DuckDuckGo commands only a 2.5% share of U.S. search queries, as confirmed by Weinberg’s testimony.

Under scrutiny from Google during the trial, Weinberg revealed that a substantial portion of DuckDuckGo’s search capability was derived from Microsoft’s Bing search engine and not developed in-house. Additionally, the company had permitted Microsoft to track some DuckDuckGo users until this practice was brought to light by a security researcher in 2022. Subsequently, DuckDuckGo took corrective measures to enhance its tracker blocking, including Microsoft in the list.

In earlier testimony, Eric Lehman, a former Google software engineer, raised questions about the Department of Justice’s assertion that Google’s dominance is entrenched due to the vast amount of data it gathers from user clicks, which it utilizes to enhance future searches more rapidly than competitors.

Lehman contended that advancements in machine learning have rendered it possible for computers to autonomously evaluate text without relying on user click data. In a 2018 email presented in court, Lehman proposed that rivals such as Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and other tech giants, including startups, could harness machine learning to refine internet searches and challenge Google’s supremacy in the industry. He expressed the opinion that “Huge amounts of user feedback can be largely replaced by unsupervised learning of raw text.”

During the courtroom exchange, U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta lightened the atmosphere by posing a humorous query about how internet searches might address a pop culture curiosity of the week: whether superstar singer Taylor Swift is romantically involved with NFL tight end Travis Kelce.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Antitrust Trial

Q: What is the main challenge DuckDuckGo’s founder highlighted in the antitrust trial?

A: DuckDuckGo’s founder, Gabriel Weinberg, emphasized the difficulty of competing with Google due to the tech giant’s contracts with phone companies and manufacturers, making Google the default search engine on many devices.

Q: Why is Google facing an antitrust trial?

A: The U.S. Department of Justice is pursuing an antitrust case against Google, alleging that the company stifled competition by securing agreements with companies like Apple and Verizon to establish its search engine as the default option on laptops and smartphones.

Q: What is DuckDuckGo’s approach to search engine privacy?

A: DuckDuckGo positions itself as a privacy-focused search engine, pledging not to track users’ search queries or online activities. It employs contextual advertising based on real-time search queries.

Q: How has DuckDuckGo’s commitment to privacy affected its user base?

A: DuckDuckGo’s emphasis on privacy attracted more users, particularly following revelations about online surveillance and data privacy scandals like the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica case.

Q: What percentage of U.S. search queries does DuckDuckGo handle?

A: According to Gabriel Weinberg’s testimony, DuckDuckGo handles approximately 2.5% of U.S. search queries.

Q: What role does machine learning play in the discussion of Google’s dominance?

A: Eric Lehman, a former Google software engineer, suggested that advancements in machine learning could reduce the reliance on user click data, potentially challenging Google’s dominance in the search engine industry.

Q: How did Gabriel Weinberg respond to questions about DuckDuckGo’s search capabilities?

A: Under questioning from Google, Weinberg revealed that a significant part of DuckDuckGo’s search capability was derived from Microsoft’s Bing search engine, not developed in-house. Additionally, the company had allowed Microsoft to track some users until corrective measures were taken.

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