Many tech companies reacted to the Russian invasion of Ukraine by limiting their services in or to the country. DuckDuckGo, the search engine that bills itself as a privacy-focused alternative to Google, was no different: On March 9, its CEO Gabriel Weinberg announcement that he was going to downgrade sites that were spreading Russian disinformation. The response of many of its users, however, has been different. While companies like Apple, Meta, Amazon and, yes, Google, have been widely praised in the US for pulling out of Russia, DuckDuckGo has come under attack.
“Privacy is a human right and transcends politics”, Weinberg tweeted.
But DuckDuckGo, it turns out, doesn’t transcend politics. This is yet another example of the impossible situation some platforms found themselves in: by not taking a public stand against misinformation or content deemed harmful, DuckDuckGo was taking a stand. Many on the right have adopted it as their search engine of choice for free speech, a mission DuckDuckGo never had but has now somehow violated. DuckDuckGo has been accused of betraying a user base that it unwittingly cultivated but didn’t really discourage.
Weinberg’s tweet announcing the change generated thousands of comments, including many from conservative-leaning users who were furious that the company they were turning to to escape perceived Big Tech censorship was now the one making the change. censorship. It didn’t help that the content that DuckDuckGo demoted and called Russian state media disinformation, which some members of the right-wing contingent of DuckDuckGo users strongly agreed with.
A little history: DuckDuckGo was launched in 2008. In 2010, it focused on privacy as a differentiator from its competitors, Google in particular. It stopped tracking its users’ search histories, and privacy advocates praised it. But DuckDuckGo grew slowly – until around 2018 when it started growing really fast. According to DuckDuckGo’s own figures, annual search queries grew from 5.9 billion in 2017 to 35.3 billion last year. By comparison, Google, by far the most widely used search engine, is believed to handle billions of search queries per year (Google doesn’t publish its search statistics), so DuckDuckGo is still only a fraction of the search engine market. research. But it’s also the second most used search engine in some places, and at the end of 2020 it raised $100 million from investors. In recent years, it has expanded its privacy mission beyond search, with a mobile browser app and plans to release a desktop version soon.
What caused this sudden spike? There was a growing awareness of internet privacy during those years, which must have been a factor. But this period also corresponds with an anti-Big Tech crusade that many on the right launched as they believed they were being increasingly censored on Big Tech platforms. Perhaps part of DuckDuckGo’s appeal to them was privacy, but for many the main reason was that they believed DuckDuckGo’s search results were unbiased. Supposedly liberal, Google censored so-called conservative content. And supposedly, DuckDuckGo was not.
Right-wing publications and pundits have also happily pushed DuckDuckGo. The Federalist called DuckDuckGo a “valuable replacement tool” for Google, saying Google “hides” conservative content, while “more organic DuckDuckGo search reveals a variety of viewpoints and ideologies.” Joe Rogan (who may not be “right-wing” himself but certainly has a sizable right-wing following he’s always happy to cater to) has announced that he’s been using DuckDuckGo to find injury-related information to the vaccine because he couldn’t find it on Google. Candace Owens encouraged her fans to search for George Floyd on DuckDuckGo instead of Google, which she said was hiding the whole truth about his alleged drug use. Fox News noted in 2018 that DuckDuckGo was growing in popularity “as Google faces questions about its practices and alleged bias against conservatives.” As recently as February 23, The New York Times declared DuckDuckGo the search engine of choice for “conspiracy theorists.”
So surely DuckDuckGo knew why a lot of his new fans were coming to see him. They leaned into it a bit too. Weinberg told Fox News and Quartz that Google’s search results are biased because Google collects data about users, which it then uses to target results to them. This, he said, created filter bubbles that further polarized society. Because DuckDuckGo did not collect data, its results were unbiased and researchers were free from Google’s echo chamber. It was a bit of a dodge; the conservatives accused Google of intentionally keeping conservative sites and content out of its results, not just returning results influenced by user interests. But it was an answer that seemed to satisfy users of all political persuasions.
Then came the Russian invasion. DuckDuckGo actually took action before most of its conservative fans realized it. A company representative told the House Energy and Commerce Committee on March 1 that DuckDuckGo had suspended its partnership with Yandex, a Russian search engine. But then Weinberg tweeted that he was “sickened” by Russia’s actions and that DuckDuckGo devalued Russian disinformation. #DuckDuckGone was all the rage then, and Tucker Carlson lamented that DuckDuckGo had “joined the herd”.
“DuckDuckGo is supposed to be the search engine for free speech. That’s what it’s all about,” said Carlson’s guest that evening, Blake Masters, Arizona Senate candidate and chairman of the Thiel Foundation, giving DuckDuckGo a title that DuckDuckGo never took on itself.
DuckDuckGo spokesperson Kamyl Bazbaz told Recode that the decision was simply to do what a search engine is supposed to do: make sure users get the best results for their searches.
“Sites like RT and Sputnik that deliberately spread false information to intentionally mislead people directly defeat this purpose,” Bazbaz said. “Search engines, by definition, place higher quality relevant sites on lower sites for every search.”
Unlike some of the other platforms conservatives have flocked to – Gab, GETTR, Parler, BitChute and Locals, for example – DuckDuckGo was not created to be a right-wing Big Tech alternative, even if it has become a reason why many people have started using it. It’s a position some of his peers in the same situation might find themselves in too, if they haven’t already. Rumble, Substack, MeWe, and Telegram are all platforms that weren’t designed to meet the needs of the right wing, only to find themselves embraced by it.
Rumble has happily pivoted, securing investments from Peter Thiel, striking deals with far-right or far-right adjacent creators like Dan Bongino and Glenn Greenwald, and partnering with Trump’s upcoming social media app, TRUTH Social. He now presents himself as “immune to cancel culture”. Substack, MeWe, and Telegram haven’t gone that far, but their more lax content policies have made them a home (and, in some cases, a great money-making opportunity) for controversial figures including Alex Berenson and Graham Linehan (Substack); Laura Loomer and Milo Yiannopoulos (Telegram); and radical extremist groups (MeWe). This doesn’t seem to have hurt their results.
Will this hurt DuckDuckGo? Some of its former users are encouraging others to switch to Brave, whose crypto-friendly CEO policy might align better with theirs, and, yes, Yandex — probably no threat of downgrading pro-Russian content there. -low ! DuckDuckGo told Recode that its search traffic “has been normal” since Weinberg’s announcement, but it may be too soon to tell if the decision is causing any lasting damage. Or any damage at all.
DuckDuckGo did not respond to Recode’s question as to whether or not it was surprised by the response to its decision. Instead, it doubled down on what has been, for most of its existence, DuckDuckGo’s only stated mission, despite what others have attributed to it.
“Privacy is our top priority, not supporting any particular political or ideological viewpoint,” Bazbaz said. “It’s not censorship. These are just search rankings.
This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. register here so as not to miss the next one!