Gabriel Weinberg noticed web traffic building on the night of Thursday 6 June — immediately after the revelations about the “Prism” programme. Through the programme, the US’s National Security Agency claimed to have “direct access” to the servers of companies including, crucially, the web’s biggest search engines — Google, Microsoft and Yahoo.
Within days of the story, while the big companies were still spitting tacks and tight-lipped disclaimers, the search engine Weinberg founded — which pledges not to track or store data about its users — was getting 50% more traffic than ever before. That hasgone up and up as more revelations about NSA and GCHQ internet tapping have come in.
“It happened with the release by the Guardian about Prism,” says Weinberg, right, a 33-year-old living in Paoli, a suburb of Philadelphia on the US east coast. “We started seeing an increase right when the story broke, before we were covered in the press.” From serving 1.7m searches a day at the start of June, it hit 3m within a fortnight.
Yet you’ve probably never heard of DuckDuckGo. “If you asked 100 people, 96 would probably think it was a Chinese restaurant,” as the SFGate site observed. (The name comes from the children’s game DuckDuckGoose, a sort of tag involving seated players.)
You won’t find it offered as an alternative default search engine on any browser, on desktop or mobile. Using it is very definitely an active choice, whereas using Google is the default option on most browsers. And 95% of people never change the default settings on anything.
Weinberg, who lives with his wife and two sons, did not build his search engine with that intention. The initial idea came after selling his previous startup, Opobox (“a sort of Friends Reunited”), for $10m (£6.7m) to Classmates.com in 2006. “My wife was doing her PhD, so I had some spare time,” he says. Taking a class in stained-glass making, he discovered that the teacher’s handout with “useful web links” didn’t tally with Google’s results at all. “I realised that there were millions of people who knew the right list of search terms and would make a better engine than Google.”
Then he noticed growing amounts of junk sites in Google results – pushed there by experts who had gamed the giant’s algorithms. He decided that by hooking into web services such as Wikipedia, Yelp and Qype, he could get focused answers cheaply. By using a combination of those services and crowdsourced links, he built the site’s first search index.
Of the privacy angle, he says: “I kind of backed into that.” It wasn’t a political decision, but a personal one. “It’s hard to define my politics. I take every issue seriously and come to my own conclusion. I don’t really feel like I belong to any political party in the US … I guess I’m more on the liberal side.”
Having decided that searching is intimately personal, he deduced that governments would want to get hold of search data. Search data, he says, “is arguably the most personal data people are entering into anything. You’re typing in your problems, your desires. It’s not the same as things you post publicly on a social network.”
More recently, the Prism fallout has seen traffic keep rising, building on that success. “I think these people are going to stay too.”