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Internet search services: Europe’s quest for online privacy among browsers
Every time you enter a search term into a text box in a web browser, you leave a trail of digital breadcrumbs, and various corporations — most of them American — make a little money. Every search is tracked, analysed, categorised, and squeezed for ad revenue.
Within Europe, Google has a 93.6% market share of web searches, according to Netmarketshare.com. Bing has 2.7%. Russia’s Yandex has just 1.6% — though it has 64% of Russian market share. Search companies accumulate data on users’ searches, so they can personalise search results and deliver more user-relevant online ads. The resulting personal profiles contain an astonishing amount of information about you, including information that could easily be used to infer your political preferences, among much else.
Globally, web search market share is divided between Google (70.6%) and Microsoft’s Bing (13.0%), China’s Baidu (11.8%), Yahoo (2.3%), Russia’s Yandex (1.2%), and DuckDuckGo with 0.43%. The only European search company in the top 10 is Berlin-based Ecosia, in ninth place globally, with a 0.12% market share — but it relies on Bing search results.
Masks provide privacy
Andreas Wiebe, founder of Switzerland-based internet search company SwissCows, explained to DW that some search companies help users protect their privacy by creating a cutout or mask which lets users search Google or Bing without getting tracked: “These search services strip a user’s search query of identifying data, send the search term to Google or Bing, wait for results, and then return results to the user.”
For example, the Netherlands-based search company StartPage, which won a 2019 consumer choice award from German consumer organisation Stiftung Warentest, is a privacy-focused mask over Google search results. The popular US-based search company DuckDuckGo is a mask over Bing search results, as is France’s Qwant.
Ecosia also uses Bing, but it doesn’t prioritise user privacy. Its unique selling point is that 80% of Ecosia’s profits support tree-planting projects: as of July 2020, more than 100 million seedlings have been planted using Ecosia’s share of search-generated advertising revenues.
A few small search companies go beyond merely being a mask over Google or Bing, and operate their own “web crawler” software to index and store web pages independently. SwissCows has its own web crawler, but “our search results are a hybrid,” Wiebe said. “When you put a search term into SwissCows.com, about 20% to 25% of results are generated from our own index; the rest are from Bing.”
SwissCows’ selling point is “semantic search,” which makes it easy to perform a series of conceptually related searches; a strong emphasis on privacy; and a family-friendly filtering-out of violence and pornography. Exalead, a unit of France’s Dassault Systemes, has its own search engine, but also mostly relies on Bing. MetaGer, a spinoff from the University of Hanover, combines results from its own partial index of the web with results from other search engines.
Wiebe wants Europe to build the data centres needed to support fully European search engines, but his small company can’t afford to do it alone: Indexing billions of web pages is “a gargantuan exercise that would take a very large data centre six or seven years to complete, requiring enormous amounts of computer power, electricity, and money,” he said.
“Google and Bing have the capacity; so do China’s Baidu and Russia’s Yandex. No one else has. This is why most search companies just provide a mask over the search results from Google or Bing.” Startpage, founded in the Netherlands in 2006, claims to be the world’s first private search engine. The firm says it does not track, log, create user profiles, or share user data. So how does it make money? “We make money through contextual advertising related to a website’s content. Meaning if you search for bicycles, you’ll be served with bicycle-related ads along with your search results,” Startpage co-founder and CEO Robert Beens said.
— This article has been provided by Deutsche Welle