To some users, it feels like another Big Tech bait and switch. To others, it’s a case of getting half a loaf. But to many, it’s a betrayal of a principled promise. The search engine DuckDuckGo will now begin making judgments about the accuracy of the information produced by its search algorithms.
As Breitbart reports in “Diet Google: DuckDuckGo Will ‘Down-Rank’ What It Decides Is ‘Disinformation,’”, the company’s CEO and founder, Gabriel Weinberg, posted a Twitter thread announcing that, as part of standing with Ukraine, the search engine had been
rolling out search updates that down-rank sites associated with Russian disinformation.
In addition to down-ranking sites associated with disinformation, we also often place news modules and information boxes at the top of DuckDuckGo search results (where they are seen and clicked the most) to highlight quality information for rapidly unfolding topics.
In justifying his company’s decision to wade into determining which information is “disinformation” and “misinformation”—a.k.a., censorship—Weinberg carefully reiterated his company’s promise to users (and plugged his search engine):
DuckDuckGo’s mission is to make simple privacy protection accessible to all. Privacy is a human right and transcends politics, which is why about 100 million people around the world use DuckDuckGo. (We don’t have an exact count since we don’t track people.)
Alas, with Big Tech the disinformation is often in the details.
Down-ranking, news modules, information boxes, and similar actions are what other search engines have employed in deeming what information is fit for users to view and contemplate. Because of its promise not to track users—unlike its competitors’ partisan collusion with Democrats in the 2020 election—conservative and independent users flocked to DuckDuckGo as an alternative to these other search engines.
Yet, though these users aren’t being tracked, they believe they are not getting the non-politicized, free flow of information they reasonably inferred from DuckDuckGo’s solicitations. There is anger and outrage; and the company is acutely aware of it.
Therefore, when a user accused DuckDuckGo of betraying its principles by doing precisely what it promised not to do, in response Weinberg insisted on the distinction between privacy and censorship: “The whole point of DuckDuckGo is privacy. The whole point of the search engine is to show more relevant content over less relevant content, and that is what we continue to do.”
DuckDuckGo is apparently deciding that it has the judgment and authority to define and determine what is “relevant,” just like every other search engine. The company’s argument is that privacy and propaganda are two separate matters. Consequently, it appears the only difference between it and other search engines is that, by refraining from tracking its users, DuckDuckGo won’t know who they are censoring and propagandizing. And, per Weinberg’s “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” defense, if any user expected more that’s on them, not on DuckDuckGo.
Perhaps. But what is on Weinberg is the fact that, like others in a lengthy line of morally weak Big Tech titans, he evidently can’t resist the temptation to shape how and what his users should consider and conclude.
As for dissatisfied DuckDuckGo users and countless others around the world, the key question remains: Where can they find a search engine that both respects privacy and rejects censorship?