In the battle for online privacy, U.S. search giant Google is a Goliath facing a handful of European Davids. The backlash over Big Tech's collection of personal data offers new hope to a number of little-known search engines that promise to protect user privacy.
Sites like Britain's Mojeek, France's Qwant, Unbubble in Germany and Swisscows say they don't track user data, filter results or show "behavioral" ads.
These sites are growing amid the rollout of new European privacy regulations, numerous corporate data scandals and even comments by high-profile tech executives such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, which have combined to raise public awareness about the mountains of personal information that companies stealthily collect and sell to advertisers.
Widespread suspicion in Europe about Google's stranglehold on internet searches has also helped make the continent a spawning ground for secure search sites. Europe is particularly sensitive to privacy issues because spying by the Nazi-era Gestapo and the secret services in the Soviet Union is still within living memory.
"For us, it's all about citizens and citizens have the right to privacy," said Eric Leandri, chairman of Paris-based Qwant. He said that view contrasts with the mindset across the Atlantic, where internet users are seen as consumers whose rights are dictated by the terms of their agreements with tech companies.
Traffic numbers show interest is rising. Qwant handled nearly 10 billion queries in 2017, more than triple the previous year. On a monthly basis, it's getting 80 million visits while requests are growing 20 percent. Leandri says the site now accounts for 6 percent of search engine market share in France, its biggest market.
Qwant is even getting official support. Last month the French army and parliament both said they would drop Google and use Qwant as their default search engine, as part of efforts to reclaim European "digital sovereignty."
The site doesn't use tracking cookies or profile users, allowing it to give two different users the exact same result. It has built its own index of 20 billion pages covering French, German and Italian. It plans to expand the index to about two dozen other languages, for which it currently relies on results from Microsoft's Bing.
Mojeek, based in Brighton, England, operates on similar principles and has so far cataloged 2 billion web pages. The company says it gets 200,000 unique visitors a month and search queries have quintupled over the past year.
Germany's Unbubble is a "meta-search" engine, sending encrypted queries to more than 30 other search engines and hiding its users' locations. It promises neutral search results rather than ones filtered by an algorithm catering to personal biases.
To be sure, Google's in no danger of toppling. The company based in Mountain View, California, accounts for three-quarters or more of global market share, depending on whom you ask, and rules the mobile market with its Android operating system.
Some privacy search operators say an equally big motivation behind these startups is to avoid "filter bubbles," in which internet content is pre-selected for users by the likes of Google and Facebook based on previous searches and other data.
"The main idea is to provide neutral information and allow people to depend less on machine learning-based filters," said Unbubble founder Tobias Sasse. "If you are using Google today, perhaps you'll notice that there is always the same mainstream information," preventing people from seeing the "great diversity" online, he said.
Netherlands-based Startpage anonymizes Google search results, stripping out ads and tracking. Another British startup, Oscobo, does anonymous searches for U.K. users, with results licensed from Yahoo/Bing. Outside Europe, there's also U.S. site DuckDuckGo.
Some of these sites rely financially on donations, others from "affiliate advertising" — links from Amazon, eBay or other shopping sites that pay a commission but don't target or track users. That's different from Google's behavioral, or targeted, ads that come up based on your search history, which many find creepy and invasive.
Mojeek has private investors. Founder Marc Smith, who began in 2004 with two servers in his bedroom, is "very much anti-advertising," said Finn Brownbill, Mojeek's head of marketing. "It's a necessary evil and we'll look for whatever route we can to avoid it."
In Switzerland, a country whose banking sector became a byword for secrecy, Swisscows has grown rapidly, handling 20 million search queries a month, up from 14 million a year ago, said founder Andreas Wiebe.
Even so, Wiebe said there was plenty of skepticism when he started the site. "In 2014, I had people talking to me (saying) 'you're crazy'," and that the project would be dead within a year. Instead, National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden's revelations of U.S. government surveillance the following year gave it a kickstart.
Swisscows has built its own German-language web index. For other languages, it uses Bing but queries and results are run through a firewall that strips out personal identifiers such as IP addresses.
Along with a conventional list of results, Swisscows also has a nifty grid of keyword tiles to narrow down search results by context.
The site's servers are buried in former military bunkers deep inside the Swiss Alps. Funding comes from donations and Wiebe's software company Hulbee. He plans next year to launch a secure messaging app, Teleguard, with a paid business version he hopes will help fund the site.
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