Drive just about 25 miles west of City Hall, and you’ll land at the HQ of one of the country’s foremost pioneers in internet privacy: DuckDuckGo, in Paoli.
Marketed as the antidote to the all-knowing, all-tracking Google, DuckDuckGo came on the scene in 2008. Its (fittingly) private founder, Gabriel Weinberg, may be press shy, but that hasn’t stopped him from testifying about online privacy before Congress, as he did in early 2019.
If you don’t use or know much about DuckDuckGo, you probably do know its ad campaign: Set to The Police’s Every Breath You Take, the national blitz launched last May. You sports bros may have heard it at a Sixers game and assumed it was targeting you because you, say, bet online, or look at porn (no judgment!); parents may have heard it while driving the kids to school, and thought it was speaking to your late-night Amazon habit, or your tendency to stalk exes on social media (no judgment!).
Wherever you saw or heard it, it probably felt relevant because it is relevant – to all of us, whatever we’re doing online: A new study out of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania just found that 74 percent of Americans “would like to control the data companies have about them, but they don’t believe they can,” explains Annenberg’s Joseph Turow, Robert Lewis Shayon Professor of Media Systems and Industries.
The campaign is brilliant when you consider how personal it feels — but how universal its sentiment really is. Because it was not specifically targeted at you: The TV ad ran nationally, in 175 designated market areas (DMAs), on streaming platforms like Roku and Paramount+, in primetime and during MLB games, and the NBA playoffs. The radio ad aired coast-to-coast on more than 5,000 stations, SiriusXM, and streaming platforms.
“We never used highly targeted ads to reach specific people or groups,” Cristina Stanley, VP of Marketing at DuckDuckGo, says (because Weinberg, ever private, didn’t take an interview). “Every time we do market research we’ve found that caring about privacy is something that cuts across pretty much every demographic, so there wasn’t one particular audience goal. Instead we wanted to focus on reaching as many people as we could.”
They appear to have done just that: While DuckDuckGo doesn’t even track how many users it has, beyond extrapolating figures based on how many searches its system conducts, through surveys the company has seen a significant uptick in brand awareness.
“We knew from our research that it was important to use provocative and relatable moments to emphasize the way people experience privacy violations online, like the feeling you’re being watched,” says Stanley. DuckDuckGo worked with creative agency Mirimar, with the television ad produced by Partizan and directed by Jonathan Klein; DuckDuckGo’s internal team produced the radio ads. “It was a true collaboration between DuckDuckGo, Mirimar, Partizan, and Jonathan Klein to strike the right balance of creepy and funny.”
More than a feeling
According to DuckDuckGo’s Tracker Radar research, “that feeling of being watched isn’t just a feeling”: Google trackers are embedded in 79.2 percent of the top 75,000 websites on the internet, giving the company the ability to watch almost everything a person does online. By contrast, DuckDuckGo has what they call a “privacy super app” to replace Google products with a private search engine, web browser, tracker blocking, email protection, and more.
Those features may make a dent in eliminating some online tracking features, but they don’t totally solve the problem. As the company concedes, “While our apps and extensions guard against many types of online tracking, we can’t completely protect you when you visit other websites and apps.” When you browse on social media platforms and e-commerce sites, for example, those companies will know what you’re doing on their sites, especially if you’re logged in.
“I think that DuckDuckGo is an interesting idea,” Turow says. “To be absolutely honest, I tried it but I’m so used to Google at this point, which is terrible to say, that I’ve gone back to Google.”
“Many of DuckDuckGo’s protections focus on hidden third-party tracking, which companies use behind the scenes to track your activity on sites other than their own,” Stanley says. For example, they say that while it’s not possible to stop Amazon from collecting data on its own website, DuckDuckGo can limit Google, Facebook, and others from tracking your Amazon activity and adding it to a larger profile about you.
To be sure, the ad campaign implies, if in a somewhat convoluted and contradictory way, there are greater forces at play. “We knew we wanted to put the blame squarely on big data collectors — not users — and empower people to take back their privacy online,” Stanley says.
All of which argues for what Turow and his colleagues are calling for: greater protections from government regulatory agencies.
Consider these findings from Turow’s report: Only 1 in 3 Americans know it’s legal for an online store to charge people different prices depending on where they are located. More than 8 in 10 Americans believe — incorrectly — that the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) stops apps from selling data collected about app users’ health to marketers. (You can read the alternately fascinating and frightening full report here.)
Companies that mine our data may argue that it’s a transactional experience for both parties: You share your data in exchange for, say, discounted prices, or targeted search results. But Turow and others argue that much more is at stake than saving money on your grocery bill or quickly tracking down the cute shoes an influencer was wearing on Instagram.
“I’m worried that it’s not about now only,” Turow says. “It’s more about people’s grandchildren, and great grandchildren. 20 years from now, what kind of society are we going to have?”
“We may think that, Oh it’s just what I buy. But companies can use artificial intelligence, machine learning, and things like that to really draw a picture of a person’s health and the ways in which they live and potentially their longevity. And that might affect their insurance. It might affect whether a company’s willing to give you a loan. It might affect whether a company will employ you,” Turow explains. “There are a whole lot of issues around giving up data and not even knowing what you’re giving up — and not understanding the implications of things that seem benign.”
And neither DuckDuckGo nor other national efforts, like educational curricula designed to teach media literacy to students as young as elementary school, or parental controls on smart devices, are adequate protection.
What’s really needed, experts agree, is a larger-scale intervention, one at the regulatory level.
Americans want action
So why hasn’t the government done more?
“The short answer is lobbying,” Turow says. “The longer answer is, I think, that government officials historically have worried about killing the goose that lays the golden egg.” By that, he means that with manufacturing being down in the U.S., with service industries not being high-paid industries, the government sees tech as the leading light in terms of money-making and innovation.
But citizens want more: According to Turow’s report, nearly 80 percent of Americans believe it is urgent for Congress to act now in order to regulate how companies can use personal information — before it’s too late.
“I’m worried that it’s not about now only,” he says. “It’s more about people’s grandchildren, and great grandchildren. Twenty years from now, what kind of society are we going to have where a sea of data are kind of moving underneath our feet and we don’t even understand it, and they help to decide whether we get good jobs, whether we get good seats at restaurants, whether companies give us good insurance policies after they track what we eat. People don’t realize that even things like the frequent shopper cards you use for supermarkets can get enormous amounts of data about you.”
This spring, Turow and his collaborators are meeting with the Federal Trade Commission to present their findings, in hopes of jumpstarting the conversation and enlisting regulators’ help. He encourages all of us to reach out to our legislators to call for greater oversight. His overarching battlecry: “We certainly can’t do it by ourselves.”
In the meantime, I ask Turow if he uses DuckDuckGo, making clear that I’m not asking for a product endorsement, that this piece is neither a takedown nor a seal of approval.
“I don’t know the ins and outs of DuckDuckGo. I know they’re trying really hard to get people to think of them as a privacy brand, which is a good thing. I just don’t know enough about it,” he says. “I think that DuckDuckGo is an interesting idea. To be absolutely honest, I tried it, but I’m so used to Google at this point, which is terrible to say, that I’ve gone back to Google.”
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