Tech Companies Don’t Need to Be Creepy to Make Money

Sometimes I’m really wrong. 

In 2008 I heard about a funky new search engine called DuckDuckGo, took one glance, and predicted it would die a quick death. After all, back then Google was on the rise and the fields of tech were littered with the wreckage of rival search engines, like starships shot out of the sky. How could a new one succeed? (And with a name like that?)

Worse, DuckDuckGo’s business model was paddling against the current. Its central feature was a commitment to privacy: Its code wouldn’t track you at all. A delightful idea, to be sure! But it seemed like financial suicide when all other tech giants—Google and the ascendant Twitter and Facebook—were racing in the opposite direction to build surveillance-capitalist tools for scraping together as much data as possible about you. “Big Data” was the turtle-necked catchphrase of tech conferences, and tech CEOs promised that feasting upon your every activity—and personalizing their services—would produce an epic win-win. You would get search results (or social media feeds) tweaked for precisely your interests; they could offer advertisers laser-guided targeting. Those hippies over at DuckDuckGo? Adorable business model, folks. Good luck.

More than a decade on, DuckDuckGo has made boatloads of dough. It became profitable in 2014 and stayed that way.

Last year, the company’s traffic more than doubled. It has done this with no creepy surveillance: All it does is use whatever keywords you type in the search bar—“best inkjet printer,” “Boston hotels”—to customize an ad for that search. This is known as “contextual” targeting, distinct from the secret-police “behavioral” tracking that fuels advertising on many tech platforms and creates a mammoth dossier of your online activity. DuckDuckGo doesn’t even retain your search info. Every time you load the search engine, you’re a stranger.

“We questioned the assumption: Do you really need to track people to make money in advertising? And our answer is no,” Gabriel Weinberg, DuckDuckGo’s founder and CEO, tells me. Part of the company’s success, he notes, is that a significant chunk of people want more privacy. A Pew Research Center study found that 81 percent of Americans think the downsides of data tracking outweigh the benefits.

Indeed, DuckDuckGo’s success suggests, more trenchantly, that a lot of Silicon Valley’s business argument about data harvesting is flat-out wrong. They say they need to do it to produce compelling products: Personalizing their wares helps keep us maximally “engaged,” and thus rakes in advertising money. Yet here’s a tech firm that avoided practicing surveillance capitalism; it just practices regular capitalism.

By now, the downsides of hyper-personalization are well known, particularly in the feeds of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube—filter bubbles, polarization, wild-eyed disinfo. Social media isn’t directly comparable to search, obviously, but when you behold Weinberg’s success, it raises a question: Was all this customization and tracking necessary in the first place?

“A lot of companies could be still pretty profitable if they chose to go this route,” Weinberg says. “They may be a little less profitable. But you know, it’s like—is that extra profit worth all this societal impact and problems? We don’t think so.” Even some ad buyers are questioning whether endless tracking works; a survey by Digiday found that 45 percent of ad execs saw “no significant benefit” from behavioral tracking, and 23 percent found it made revenues decline.

The techlash of the past few years has shone a light on the harms of technology, and the icky stuff it’s exposed sometimes makes you think, Man, modern tech is a curse! But in DuckDuckGo’s success, one can see that our predicament stems less from tech qua tech—from the mere existence of microprocessors, fiber-optic cables, and code—than from tech business models.

It won’t be simple to thrash our way out of surveillance-driven business models. We could craft public policy to make it harder to harvest personal data, as Shoshana Zuboff, author of The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, suggests. Or we could break the big tech monopolies into smaller firms that actually have to compete with one another, making them more likely to offer what customers actually want, as Senator Elizabeth Warren argues.

Either fix requires legislators to act forcefully against powerful companies, which is not a given. It’s worth pushing for, though. Today’s creepy business models have become normalized in Silicon Valley. If we want more firms to follow in DuckDuckGo’s path, they need all the help they can get.


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