DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg: Popping the Filter Bubble – The Knowledge Project

Check out The Knowledge Project Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • As you browse the web, there are hidden trackers on every page you visit
    • For example – If you were to go to the New York Times website, there are about 30 other companies “sitting” on the page for a variety of purposes, like:
      • Analytics
      • Advertising
      • To help run the site
    • (Google is on ~80% of the top million websites while Facebook is on ~25% of them)
  • Why does this matter?
    • Those companies can use your data for whatever they want (they tend to aggregate it into a profile of you which they can sell)
  • What are the consequences?
    • More effective advertising towards you online
    • Things like your Google search results, your Facebook news feed, and even Netflix will show you more things you’re likely to click on
  • “I think the government NEEDS to play a role here. If the data can be collected and used to make profits, it’s going to be used for exactly that unless the government stops it.”
  • How does DuckDuckGo make money?
    • Contextual advertising (rather than behavioral advertising)
      • This is advertising shown based on the content of the webpage (not based on your online history)
  • What can people do to increase their privacy online?
    • Use DuckDuckGo
    • Check out the device tips at spreadprivacy.com
      • For every one of your devices, there are a few settings you should change which will increase your privacy
    • For all the services you use, like Gmail, there are generally more private alternatives
      • Like ProtonMail or FastMail
      • (You want to separate your data as best you can, and not use the same company – Google – for both email and search)

Intro

Some Background

  • Gabriel got both his undergraduate (physics) and graduate degree (technology & public policy) from MIT
    • In between degrees, Gabriel started an education software company – he calls it “15 years too early”
    • During his graduate degree, Gabriel started & ran a social networking company which was eventually sold to classmates.com
      • “But we got destroyed by Facebook”

Online Privacy 101

  • DuckDuckGo started to take off in 2013 around the time of the Edward Snowden situation
    • In simple terms – it’s a search engine that doesn’t track you
    • They now offer a suite of privacy tools including private search as well as a tool that blocks Google and Facebook trackers across the web
  • In the past few years, both government and corporate online surveillance has spiked
    • (Governments actually get most of their data from that which you give to corporations)
  • As you browse the web, there are hidden trackers on every page you visit
    • For example – If you were to go to the New York Times website, there are about 30 other companies “sitting” on the page for a variety of purposes…like:
      • Analytics
      • Advertising
      • To help run the site
  • Why does this matter?
    • Those companies can use your data for whatever they want (they tend to aggregate it into a profile of you which they can sell)
  • What are the consequences?
    • More effective advertising towards you online
    • Things like your Google search results, your Facebook news feed, and even Netflix will show you more things you’re likely to click on
      • But to do this – they have to hide things you’re less likely to click on (like opposing viewpoints)
      • For example – Different people will get different results when they search “gun control” online
        • In effect then, everyone just stays within their own bubbles, not really seeing opposing viewpoints
    • On DuckDuckGo – EVERYBODY gets the same search results
  • Stats:
    • Google is on ~80% of the top million websites (mostly Google Analytics or Google Advertising)
    • Facebook is on 25% of the top million websites (either the Facebook login tool, or sites running Facebook ads, etc.)

The Role of Governments in Data Privacy

  • Europe has the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)
    • It essentially declares – “Privacy is a fundamental right, even online. You should have the right to know which companies are tracking you, what information they’re collecting, and the right to opt out of them sharing it.”
  • In the U.S, there has never been a “general” privacy regulation
    • California passed its own last year, which goes into effect in 2020 (setting the clock for the federal government to make their own or have to deal with California’s law)
      • “I think the government NEEDS to play a role here. If the data can be collected and used to make profits, it’s going to be used for exactly that unless the government stops it.”

The Big 3 – Google, Facebook, Amazon,

  • These 3 companies have the unique advantage of being able to collect and utilize more data than arguably anyone else
  • Should the government level the playing feel?
    • Google and Facebook own essentially all the digital advertising on the web
      • The more data they have – the more they can target their ads, putting many other media companies and small businesses out of business
    • One thing the government can do:
      • Facebook collects data from many places (i.e., through Instagram and Whatsapp – which they own)
      • The government can prevent them from sharing data across their business units
    • “If fundamentally you don’t break up these data monopolies in some way, there’s no easy way for other people to compete”

The Growing Privacy Concern

  • About a third of all people have taken some sort of action to reduce their digital footprint online in some shape or form
    • This percentage is growing
      • Companies like Apple (and DuckDuckGo) are recognizing this
  • Will people eventually pay for privacy?
    • In search, you’re already paying for it (with your data)
      • There was a recent news story about someone who stopped using Facebook – he reported spending 50% less (because of the reduction in targeted ads towards him)
    • Gabriel thinks that if they started charging for DuckDuckGo, overall, way fewer people would use it

How does DuckDuckGo make money

  • Contextual advertising (rather than behavioral advertising)
    • This is advertising shown based on the content of the page (not based on your online history)
    • This doesn’t necessarily result in less revenue 
    • Most of Google’s search ads (where they make most of their money) are shown based on keywords (aka contextual advertising) – they use more behavioral advertising for ads on YouTube and other sites online

The Principles of Privacy

  • #1 – Privacy is a fundamental right (everyone has the right to private communication)
    • Either via mail, email (although it’s not the case here currently), or text (like with iMessage)
    • Why is this important? – People change their behavior (particularly when searching online) when they know they’re being watched
  • #2 – “There is more data online about you than ever before…it’s easier to surveil you than it’s ever been in the past”
    • Your phone is constantly sending out location information
    • Even when you text somebody, there’s a record it went through the internet (even though the message can’t be read, it’s known that X talked to Y)
  • Your search information should be PRIVATE – it’s EXTREMELY personal data
    • You don’t need to track people to make money

How does DuckDuckGo internet search work?

  • DuckDuckGo focuses on “instant answers” by getting very good at “indexing” certain providers/verticals (like Wikipedia, Yelp, Google Maps, YouTube, Trip Adviser, etc.)
  • So when you enter a query, DuckDuckGo attempts to figure out the best provider for that instant answer, then searches it
    • For any different search, DuckDuckGo might “search” 2-3 different provider
  • There’s location built into your IP address, so whenever you connect the internet – you’re giving away your rough location
    • This is reflected in your search
      • DuckDuckGo gives you the option to utilize this (like if you were searching for a local restaurant), but they don’t store your location permanently

Where is internet search heading?

  • Mobile search is on the rise (desktop search meanwhile hasn’t decreased) – so people are using search more as a whole
  • Instant answers have gotten better and better

What can people do to reduce their digital footprint and increase their privacy online?

  • Use DuckDuckGo
  • Check out the device tips at spreadprivacy.com
    • For every one of your devices, there’s a series of settings you should change which will increase your privacy
  • For all the services you use, like Gmail, there are generally more private alternatives
    • Like ProtonMail or FastMail
    • (You want to separate your data as best you can, and not use the same company – Google – for email and search)
  • If you want to get more extreme, use the Tor Browser
    • This is a special internet browser that makes it near impossible to track communication 

Does Gabriel use social media?

  • He quit Facebook ~7 years ago
    • “All the research I’ve seen shows that quitting Facebook has had very positive effects for people [mentally]”
      • They feel less lonely/isolated
      • Why is this the case?
        • You’re probably now spending your time in more effective ways that add up to make you happier
        • The content is toxic – you’re seeing the highlight reel of everyone else’s life while you’re stuck in your own
  • He uses Twitter, but not Instagram

Gabriel’s New Book – Super Thinking

  • Why write the book?
    • “It’s been ruminating for 20 years”
    • Gabriel knew that if you understood a broad set of mental models, your decision-making and overall thinking ability would drastically improve, so he first made a list of 100 mental models he continually used in daily life
      • This list turned into a blog post – Mental Models I Find Repeatedly Useful
        • Within DuckDuckGo, this list was routinely used to help serve as a problem-solving road map
      • And soon enough – the list turned into a book which he co-wrote with his wife

Gabriel’s Most Prized Mental Models

  • Opportunity Cost
    • This most simply relates to how you spend your time – you should constantly be considering if you’re spending it in the most optimal way relative to everything else you could be doing
  • Forcing Function
    • This has to do with setting an operation (like something in your calendar), where you’ve preset a time/mechanism, which forces you to think critically
      • It can be a 1-on-1/board meeting – they force you to compile metrics and prepare
      • Another ex. – schedule a time to go to the gym
    • Forcing functions at DuckDuckGo
      • Every employee has a career adviser, with whom they have to hold a 1-on-1 meeting every week
      • Every project has to have a summary update sent out every week
  • Thinking Grey (aka strong opinions held loosely)
    • Don’t let opinions become part of your identity and always be willing to change your mind
    • Annie Duke has some advice related to this
      • Never be 100% certain on ANYTHING

More About DuckDuckGo

  • Everyone at DuckDuckGo works remote across a wide range of time-zones
  • DuckDuckGo’s Core Values
    • Question Assumptions
      • This might involve asking – “Should we be doing this at all?” or “Is there a simpler way to do this?”
    • Validate Direction
    • Build Trust
  • An important mental model within the company – Directly Responsible Individual (DRI)
    • Every project/task has one person who “owns” it
      • This avoids the diffusion of responsibility and bystander effect

Parenting

  • Check out the Intelligence Squared podcast (Gabriel listens to it with his 10- and 7-year-old kids)
    • It’s a bit over their heads, so he pauses quite a bit, to make sure his kids are following along. He might ask:
      • Do you understand what’s going on?
      • Why do you think X happened?
      • What do you think about what X said?
    • Gabriel also will sometimes listen to The Daily podcast with them
  • Gabriel’s youngest has started to get into programming and frequently watches science-related YouTube channels
  • Both of Gabriel’s kids take a few online courses run through Johns Hopkins
    • His youngest just finished a scratch programming course and is now taking a course in cryptography
    • His oldest is currently enrolled in a Python course
  • Check out CrashCourse on YouTube
    • It’s animated courses on economics, biology, etc.
    • Gabriel put them on DVD and sometimes has his kids watch them on their 30-minute drive to school
  • In general – “Find really good content and then talk to your kids about it”

Random

  • Gabriel just read The Myth of Capitalism
  • Gabriel walks every morning with his wife for an hour
    • “She helps call me on my bullshit”

These notes were edited by RoRoPa Editing Services

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