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Privacy-focused DuckDuckGo launches new effort to block online tracking

Exclusive: Browser makers can and will use a carefully created and now freely shared list of companies that track your online activity.

DuckDuckGo logo
DuckDuckGo; illustration by Stephen Shankland/CNET

DuckDuckGo, the maker of search engine and browser technology that doesn't track you online, is sharing data it's collected about online trackers with other companies so they can also protect your privacy

The company said Thursday it's started sharing a data set called Tracker Radar that details 5,326 internet domains used by 1,727 companies and organizations that track you online. The data is available to anyone, and browser maker Vivaldi said on Tuesday it has begun doing so.

"There will be others using it," including browsers more widely used than Vivaldi, DuckDuckGo founder and Chief Executive Gabriel Weinberg said in an exclusive interview.

The data and its adoption reflect the growing importance of protecting privacy. The online ad industry is one of the biggest privacy infringers, building profiles of people so that it can target ads more effectively. Apple has long pushed for better privacy. Now even the biggest online ad companies, Google and Facebook, say it's a priority, too.

There's evidence we're doing more than just complaining about privacy. About 32% of us have taken some action to protect our privacy online, a Cisco survey found. That can include adopting tracker-blocking browsers like Apple Safari, Brave Software's Brave, Mozilla's Firefox, Microsoft's Edge or the mobile browsers DuckDuckGo offers for Android phones and iPhones. There are also browser extensions like Ghostery, Privacy Badger and DuckDuckGo's own options.

Cashing in on privacy

People downloaded DuckDuckGo's browsers and browser extensions 20 million times in 2019 and are doing so at a rate of about 100,000 per day now, Weinberg revealed.

DuckDuckGo, a profitable company with 83 employees that's powered 3.3 billion searches so far this year, is trying to cash in on the trend. DuckDuckGo's search results shows ads supplied by Microsoft, but it bases those ads on your search terms, not on other online activity or by collecting personal information.

So if it's making money through privacy, why give away its Tracker Radar data?

Weinberg acknowledges releasing the data could "cannibalize" its own browser extension product, but that isn't the company's sole priority.

"Our vision for the company is to raise the standard of trust online," Weinberg said. "That vision trumps the profit potential here." 

Anyone can use the Tracker Radar data, which DuckDuckGo updates once a month. But for those who want the company's help using the data, DuckDuckGo also licenses it for a fee to cover costs, he said.

Block trackers, break websites?

Stopping trackers by blocking browser interactions with tracking sites might sound simple, but there are complications to the privacy technology. 

Notably, tracker blocking can cause problems with websites, like preventing videos from playing, stopping you from completing e-commerce transactions and breaking login processes. DuckDuckGo checks for those problems and, in its own browsers and extensions, tries to work around them with code that paves over the problems without actually releasing personal information.

There are other sources of tracker data, like the Disconnect list, and some browsers like Edge and Firefox already use them. DuckDuckGo compiles its Tracker Radar data by analyzing numerous websites. It annotates data with other information, like whether blocking a tracker is likely to break a website, so anyone using it can pick the best balance of privacy and convenience.

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