In Europe, Army of Davids challenges Goliath Google


LONDON: In the battle for online privacy, US 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 “behavioural” ads.

These sites are growing amid the rollout of new European privacy regulations and many corporate data scandals which have raised public awareness about the mountains of personal information that firms collect and sell to advertisers.

Europe is particularly sensitive to privacy issues because spying by the Nazi-era Gestapo and the secret services in the USSR is still within living memory.

“For us, it’s all about citizens, and citizens have the right to privacy,” said Eric Leandri, chairman of Qwant. He said that view contrasts with the mindset across the Atlantic, where internet users are seen as consumers with rights dictated by the terms of their agreements with tech firms.

Qwant handled nearly 10 billion queries in 2017, more than triple the previous year. Leandri says the site now accounts for 6% of search engine market share in France.

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.

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.

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 targeted ads 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, the marketing head. “It’s a necessary evil and we’ll find whatever route we can to avoid it.”

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