Is it right that one company should dominate the internet the way Google does? One person who feels things should be different is Gabriel Weinberg, the 41-year-old CEO of DuckDuckGo, a search engine that claims to protect the user’s private sphere and not collect huge amounts of personal data like Google.
Under fair conditions, “Google’s market share would immediately drop by 20 percentage points,” Weinberg told DW. He says that his powerful competitor has, for example, made it unnecessarily difficult to use other search engines on Android smartphones. “In fact, it takes 15 different clicks to make DuckDuckGo the default on Android devices,” he says.
Weinberg is of the view that everyone should be able to decide more easily which search engine they use. “We’re asking to be on the same level playing field,” he says, and not for any special concessions.
For some time now, Weinberg has not been alone with his demands in the US. Politicians are coming over to his side. Criticism of the market power possessed by Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple is no longer muted background noise, but rather a siren of protest. Several US states have sued Google and accused its parent company, Alphabet, of using unfair practices to defend its monopoly on online searches and advertising. Facebook is also facing litigation.
EU plans tough measures
While such legal action has been taken in somewhat piecemeal fashion in the US, the European Union is planning large-scale measures that will revamp the digital world. The European Commission wants to ensure fair competition with a digital services law and a digital market law. Those who violate the intended legislation could face penalties of up to 6% of their annual global revenue.
Partly in view of the severe penalties, internet activist Markus Beckedahl is sure that “the biggest lobbying battle of the digital world” is about to start. Beckedahl has been observing the behavior of tech giants for nearly 20 years at netzpolitik.org. He says that after such a long period of lax regulation, authorities must now set up a regulatory framework that prevents the big corporations “from extending their power further from their dominant market position.”
Asymmetries of power
According to the proposal by the European Commission, platforms will no longer be allowed to prioritize their own content and products over those of other providers. They will have to make their advertising and their recommendation algorithms more transparent so that is possible to trace what is shown to whom when. The EU is even considering breaking up corporations if they don’t stick to the EU rules.
The market share of total US digital ad spending
One effective weapon could also be so-called interoperability. This means that the big corporations would have to open up their systems. For example, a WhatsApp message could also be sent to Telegram. “This could lead to more competition on the messenger service market,” Beckedahl told DW.
Researchers and authorities are also to be given better access to data from Amazon, Google and Co. “At the moment, there is a huge asymmetry of power. Platforms have all this data; their research departments can access it in real time, while regulatory authorities stand there helplessly,” Beckedahl said.
But the Commission’s initiative is coming almost too late. In addition to commanding the search engine market, Google is also the market leader for user-generated videos via YouTube. Amazon is building up its dominance in the cloud sector (AWS — Amazon Web Services) alongside its mail order business. And Facebook is dominating social networks with its own platform and Instagram, as well as the messenger market with WhatsApp.
Gabriel Weinberg from DuckDuckGo is also watching developments in Europe. His company is one of the founding members of Global Privacy Control, an alliance that works on protecting private data. He has been working on his search engine for almost 13 years and now has 150 people working with him.
He feels the collection of personal data is “at the center of most of the things that are wrong with the internet.” Although his search engine also earns money with advertising, the adverts that are shown are based on the search context, not the user profile as with Google, he says. Weinberg believes that this also improves the quality of the search results and that his company wants all results to be the same everywhere in the world and not to be dependent on personal user data.
Weinberg says that his search engine currently receives 2 billion requests per month and is growing fast, but the market share for DuckDuckGo searches is still miniscule compared with its competitors. DuckDuckGo’s market share could be more like 10% if it were made easier to make it the default on devices, he says.
From Europe to the US?
Markus Beckedahl from netzpolitik.org says that the US government is still not interested in taking tough action on its tech giants. “Those are the companies they use to dominate the world,” he says. However, he feels that stricter regulation in the EU could become a model and increase the calls for comparable measures in the US. He cites the example of the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation. “Europe set digital standards here,” he says.
But he believes that regulation alone will not automatically improve everything — and that consumer action is necessary. “With every click, with every search request, Google gets better,” he says.
Weinberg hopes that competition will become fairer. He is already seeing interest in greater protection for the private sphere. And there have even been occasional rumors of takeover bids for his search engine. He declines to comment on them. But he does say that if a takeover did occur, it would certainly not be by Google.
This article was translated from German.