Google got rich from your data. DuckDuckGo is fighting back

In July 2018, Google was fined €4.34 billion for limiting search on Android phones. Almost two years later, its rivals claim little has changed and the company is as dominant as ever

Thomas Rohlfs

From this summer, when you set up a new Android phone or tablet in Europe, you will be presented with an extra step: a choice screen to select your default search engine.

The screen is simple. Under a search icon and a short blurb are four options. One is always Google; the others vary depending on which country you’re in. Pick one of Google’s rivals, and its results – not Google’s – will appear in a home screen search widget and in the Chrome web browser. Its app will also be downloaded to the device.

The change is so subtle that many people may not notice it. But across the continent, it marks a fundamental shift. The choice screen appears in the wake of the European Commission fining Google €4.34 billion (£3.81bn) for breaching EU antitrust rules. On July 18, 2018, competition commissioner Margarethe Vestager hit Google with the fine – the largest of three she has issued against the company – for abusing the dominance of its Android operating system.

Being big isn’t illegal, but the European Commission says dominant companies have a "special responsibility" not to abuse their powerful market position by restricting competition. At the end of an investigation spanning more than three years, the Commission concluded that Google had acted illegally in using Android to ensure that traffic went to Google Search instead of its competitors. The Commission accused Google of three unfair tactics. Google, it said, had required manufacturers to pre-install the Google Search and Chrome apps if they wanted to license the Google Play app store; had paid mobile network operators and phone manufacturers to exclusively pre-install Google Search; and had prevented manufacturers from creating alternative versions of Android without its approval if they wanted to pre-install any Google apps.

Google’s actions, the Commission said, helped it to cement its dominance in the mobile search industry. In Europe, more than 95 per cent of all searches on mobile are made through Google. The market is mostly Android devices, but Google also pays billions to Apple to be the default search engine in the Safari browser on iOS. According to Vestager, its Android practices “denied rivals the chance to innovate and compete on the merits.” Google is appealing the decision.

The way many European antitrust fines work puts the onus of fixing a problem on the guilty party. Google has re-written the contracts it holds with phone makers and relaxed limits on how Android can be developed by others. On new phones and tablets shipped into the European Economic Area, it has introduced the search engine choice screen.

The choice screen gives Google’s rivals an unprecedented presence on Android devices. Smaller players have never had such an opportunity to directly reach users on the world’s biggest mobile operating system.

Chief among those set to benefit is DuckDuckGo, a US-based search engine founded in 2008 by CEO Gabriel Weinberg. DuckDuckGo will appear on all 31 choice screens across Europe when it is first implemented, a number matched only by The company has been competing with Google for more than a decade, offering a search engine that emphasises privacy and doesn’t collect user data, but it is still tiny compared to Larry Page and Sergey Brin’s creation. “We're not trying to topple Google,” Weinberg, 40, says. “Our goal is for consumers who want to choose a private option, they should be able to do so easily.”

Thomas Rohlfs

The idea for DuckDuckGo came partly from a stained glass class. In 2007, a couple of years after completing his masters in technology policy at MIT, and having already sold a social networking startup, Opobox, for $10 million, Weinberg decided to try his hand at a new hobby. The class teacher handed out a print-out of the best websites to learn more about creating stained glass. When Weinberg tried to search for information on Google, none of the recommended sites appeared in the top results.

The sheet of paper led to the creation of I’ve Got a Fang, a crowd-sourced site where people could contribute authoritative URLs on particular subjects. Weinberg, who lives in Philadelphia, believed the knowledge from people’s heads could be better than Google’s algorithms.

I’ve Got a Fang was a flop: few people added links to the site and it failed to get any traction. But the idea of human curation stuck, and Weinberg combined this notion with the remnants of another failed side gig – one that had already run into trouble with Google. Tldscan was a series of websites that crawled structured information and published it to the web – think sports statistics available in one place. In a now-archived 2010 blog post, “My history of (mostly failed) side projects and startups”, Weinberg wrote that he was getting 50,000 visitors and $500 revenue per day from Tldscan. “Then Google blacklisted all of my sites,” he wrote.

The combination of I’ve Got a Fang’s human expertise and Tldscan’s efforts to surface useful information became key pillars of DuckDuckGo, which launched a year later in September 2008. “My original spark was: could there be a better user experience in search?” says a bespectacled, clean-shaven Weinberg, s