Friday, 9 March 2012

DuckDuckGo: A Healthier Web Search?

Since the changes in Google’s Privacy Policy on 1st March (I wrote about it in this article), I’ve been looking at alternatives to Google, and delving into the wider implications of Internet privacy. I said previously that I don't believe Google is particularly unusual in its approach to privacy (despite its declining standards), and I still insist that there are far greater privacy concerns on the web. Google have at least made it quite clear what they’re up to. It’s not so clear with other online organisations. However, the storm over Google's terms has prompted me to think carefully about what I'm really saying about myself, and to whom I'm saying it, when I search for something on the Internet. In the process of researching all this, I've sometimes been shocked at what I've overlooked, and at other times I've been shocked at what other Internet users don't know or realise.

DuckDuckGo has a very useful Goodies page.

How many people consider, for example, that when they click a Facebook Like button, they’re defining their tastes, desires, dislikes and fears to an army of pathologically-driven sales teams. Yes, it’s a Like button and not a Dislike or Fear button, but if someone posts about something they fear, and you like that post, then it’s a fairly safe assumption that you share the fear. Marketing departments will virtually kill for this sort of information. It’s what salespeople call the ‘discovery’. The difficult part of hard sell which enables companies to manipulate you into buying crap you don’t need. In using the social networking functions connected with the likes of Facebook, Twitter, etc, you’re handing over a highly-detailed and revealing dossier/profile of yourself which I’m certain you’d never dream of giving directly to a salesperson. I can go onto Twitter, find people with whom I’ve become acquainted offline, and simply by looking at the list of people they’re following, find out much more about them than I ever have in face to face communication. It’s worrying, because evidently, people don’t typically realise they’re revealing so much about themselves, to so many people. To anyone in the world who cares, in fact.

But since I no longer use Twitter and have never registered with Facebook, my first step towards a more private future online has been to consider alternative search engines to Google. And one name which has been thrown around some parts of the web quite extensively since the latest Google privacy changes, is DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo is a search engine which, unlike other search-orientated brands, genuinely does take users’ privacy seriously. In fact, DuckDuckGo has one of the simplest privacy policies I think I’ve ever seen on the web: as standard, it doesn’t collect your data.

BROWSER ALERT! 

Of course, there’s little point in using a search engine like DuckDuckGo in a bid to maintain optimum privacy, if you’re gonna load it up into a browser like Google Chrome. Chrome doesn’t at present even have an option for users to block web tracking without installing and customising an add-on (which, let’s be honest, most users are not going to do). Even if you block all cookies in Chrome, the browser itself will continue to track you. Individual sites may not be able to keep tabs on your movements, but Google will, and Google is not an island.

So I’ve set up DuckDuck go with the latest version of the Opera browser. I really like Opera and feel it’s a shame more people don’t use it. It’s incredibly fast, easy on the RAM, and the privacy options offer everything most ordinary web users would need.

By default, Opera accepts cookies, but you can block them easily enough, then set individual exceptions for the sites that basically force you to accept cookies. Opera’s exception process takes a little longer and is less logically implemented than with Firefox, but the result is the same, and of course once you’ve done it, you don’t have to touch it again unless you want to exempt more sites. Incidentally, you can see how to selectively manage web tracking cookies using Firefox in my Web Cookies and Your Privacy article. That piece also contains an explanation of what cookies really do and the impact they're likely to have.

Opera doesn’t have an automatically installable ad block routine like Firefox (Adblock Plus). But Adblock list compiler Fanboy does replacement urlfilter.ini files for Opera, which can be found via this link:

http://www.fanboy.co.nz/adblock/opera/ 

You simply replace Opera’s existing urlfilter.ini file with the one from Fanboy (best to rename the old file first and keep it in case you want to switch back), and then Opera blocks ads. If you don’t mind spending an evening optimising the Opera privacy settings, it’ll give you the light and airy feel of Chrome, without the invasion. If you’re okay with a heavier feel and the greater RAM usage, Firefox is equally good for privacy features and would also be very well matched with the DuckDuckGo search engine. Security is particularly good with Firefox too. It’s a great browser – just not as fast or streamlined as Opera.

The Opera web browser, and Microsoft's Bing search engine. We do have choices.


BUT DUCKDUCKGO IS NOT A SERIOUS COMPETITOR TO GOOGLE, RIGHT?

Before you dismiss DuckDuckGo as inevitably inferior to Google, and therefore a waste of time, I’d ask you to read this…

http://dontbubble.us/ 

It’s a demonstration of how ‘bubbling’ works on Google. Essentially, if you log into Google, the search engine will start to ‘learn’ your interests, and tailor the search results specifically to suit you. This is not something Google wants to hide. Quite the opposite in fact. In Google’s eyes it’s a major bonus because it potentially means you’ll spend a lot less time wading through irrelevant links. And that’s true. However, DuckDuckGo’s stance is that if a search engine is re-ordering the results according to its own (mechanical) notion of what the user wants, then that user begins to get sucked into a bubble, in which only the information they want to see is presented to them. In such circumstances, they can miss alternative options and views, which could feasibly be much more popular and important than their own. The theory is that their understanding of important matters can become increasingly biased as they're sucked further into their personal 'bubble'.

That’s obviously a worst case scenario and it would probably only seriously affect those who are so blinkered and lacking in inquisitiveness that they’d end up being biased anyway. I don’t think search engine ‘bubbling’ could create the kind of stunted thinking and one-sidedness that newspaper editors can instill in people with their pro-active messaging. But DuckDuckGo has a point. There are negative consequences to presenting results with a personal, rather than a statistical bias.

Incidentally, if you think you are being ‘bubbled’ by Google, or are sceptical, try a search as you’d normally work, and then try the same search using Anonymouse (there’s an overview of Anonymouse in this article). With Anonymouse, Google won’t realise it’s you doing the search, so you’ll see what a different user would see. This will reveal the effects of ‘bubbling’, if any are present.

Bubbling goes hand in hand with tracking as the two major negatives, as associated with using Google Search by the kind of user DuckDuckGo is aiming to bring on board. DuckDuckGo won’t bubble you because without storing your search history it just doesn’t have the means to do it. And there’s something else it won’t do. It won’t pass on your search terms to the sites you visit.

For example, if you search for “MIJ ’62 Strat reissue“ and you end up on this site (and a lot of people do), then Google tells me that you typed “MIJ ’62 Strat reissue” into its search box. I doubt you’d be greatly worried about me knowing that – especially since I don’t know who you are and I don’t make any efforts to find out. But what if you typed: “Photo of man with a large tool”, and this was a site which did collect information that could potentially identify you? Well, not only have you told Google you want a picture of a man with a large tool, but you’ve also told the proprietor or administrator of the site(s) you’ve ended up on. The sites you end up on may have appalling privacy policies, but before you’ve even had chance to read or agree to any privacy terms, those sites have been furnished with what could be a very private request, potentially in association with your IP address. You may of course be fine with the whole world knowing you want a photo of a man with a large tool, and there's no inherent reason why you shouldn't be. It's just that the phrases we type can be construed in negative ways, and you don't know who's getting their hands on this information, or what assumptions they'll make about you, or how they'll manage the data.

So DuckDuckGo, as a search engine which by default filters out your search term before referring you to any given site, does a great deal to keep you clear of any referenceable data leaks. But, you have to also consider the flipside of a search engine which never gives websites any search terms. If all search engines worked in the same way as DuckDuckGo, then websites would have far less idea of what visitors were really looking for. That would almost inevitably mean fewer sites meeting your needs in terms of content.

THE SEARCH 

DuckDuckGo takes some getting used to after Google. The initial interface looks familiar, but once you’ve entered your search word(s) or phrase, things look more alien. There are some adverts added to the standard search results, but they’re well enough identified, and obviously the company has to make money somehow.

The results themselves seem fine, and they’re appropriate. I’d describe the quality of the links as pretty consistently high. But the results are more limited than those served up by Google I feel. DuckDuckGo sets out to aggressively rid searches of what it sees as spam, but of course what to DuckDuckGo is consdered spam, could be a perfectly legitimate result for the user. Google can in my view be a little too liberal in displaying pointless link havens and unanswered questions on forums, though, and if you feel the same you may be very impressed with DuckDuckGo. What can be said without any question at all is that DuckDuckGo serves up different results from Google. Markedly different in some cases. That may be good or bad, depending on what you're looking for, but DuckDuckGo looks very competent within the parameters it's set itself. I don't think DuckDuckGo comes close to rivalling Google's advanced search options, which really weed out the obscurest of the obscure. But for everyday searches, I'm happy with it so far.


So I'd suggest trying out DuckDuckGo. It is different, as I say, and you'll never really know if it suits you until you've given it a blast. I doubt you'll completely sever all ties with Google Search. It hasn't attained its current status without being a damn good search engine. But there are alternatives, and this one really appeals to me.

Posted by: Bob Leggitt