On Wednesday, DuckDuckGo CEO and founder Gabriel Weinberg unveiled a new strategy for the platform, announcing, "At DuckDuckGo, we've been rolling out search updates that down-rank sites associated with Russian disinformation." Professing his platform's apparent bias in the controversial crisis, Weinberg tweeted, "Like so many others, I am sickened by Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the gigantic humanitarian crisis it continues to create. #StandWithUkraine ." He clarified further, adding:
"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."
The platform's latest position follows an announcement on Mar. 1 that DuckDuckGo "paused" its partnership with Russian search engine Yandex (which has been accused of promoting Kremlin-friendly news) over the war in Ukraine. Kate McInnis, the company's senior public policy manager for the U.S., elaborated on the pause, explaining, "The index was used to provide traditional links—meaning, non-news links—on the search engine results page in Russia and Turkey."
For years, DuckDuckGo has promoted itself as a logical alternative to the heavily biased and censored internet search platform monopolized by Google. In a March 2019 article in Quartz, Weinberg justified why people should use DuckDuckGo instead of Google. Pitching his "privacy-focused search engine," he stated:
"[W]hen you search, you expect unbiased results, but that's not what you get on Google. On Google, you get results tailored to what they think you're likely to click on, based on the data profile they've built on you over time."
Undoubtedly, DuckDuckGo's declaration of selecting what is and isn't "quality information" goes squarely against its rationale for building its culture. A Feb. 2021 internal company publication titled "DuckDuckGo Culture: How We Work" reveals the foundation which the company proclaims to rely upon to eliminate bias. Confirming its commitment to "embracing diverse perspectives," the first paragraph states:
"Our company culture is built around our values—build trust, question assumptions, and validate direction. They're central to everything we do. Building trust influences the decisions we make both externally and internally, from protecting people's privacy, to doing right by our staff, vendors, partners, and community. By professionally questioning each other's assumptions, we reject bias and create a more inclusive culture. Through continually challenging the conscious and unconscious biases we bring to work every day, we're validating our own direction constantly, ensuring that the culture and processes at DuckDuckGo remain productive and empowering."
Screenshot / DuckDuckGo on Google's Filter Bubble
Not surprisingly, legacy news outlets wasted no time denouncing DuckDuckGo when it debuted in 2008 and continue to do so. A recent column in the New York Times suggests DuckDuckGo—which heavily promotes user privacy—may be amassing users due to the fact "right-wing Americans and conspiracy theorists are shifting their online activity in response to greater moderation from tech giants like Google."
The Times insists that "right-wingers" have increasingly "embraced fledgling and sometimes fringe platforms like the chat app Telegram, the video streamer Rumble and even search engines like DuckDuckGo," as they pursue online platforms "that seem more favorable to their conspiracy theories and falsehoods."
Forcing the conspiracy theory user narrative (bolstered in legacy media after Joe Rogan announced he used the platform to search for accurate COVID-19 data) the Times boldly claims that the focus towards uncensored online search alternatives like DuckDuckGo has put search engines in a difficult position.
The Times—which boasts Vanguard and Blackrock as its top two shareholders—explains that as a "growing set of Americans" are "gripped by conspiracy theories," search engines must now "try to deliver relevant results from obscure search terms and avoid surfacing possible misinformation, all while steering clear of censorship claims."
Still, despite the Times' claim that big tech giants like Google intently "steer clear of censorship," legal challenges are mounting up around the globe against the platform giant. Increasingly, regulators have accused Google of maintaining an illegal monopoly over its search and digital advertising business.
Speaking on the situation, Weinberg accused Google of abusing browser extensions to stifle competitors. In early January, he stated in an interview that since 2020, Google has been deploying manipulative design features, known as "dark patterns," to trick users into abandoning rival products. He noted that the tweaks, although subtle, have had a significant impact on his company.
Describing his public critiques as "the first time the company is publicly speaking out about how Google's practice has impacted its business," Weinberg said DuckDuckGo had lost hundreds of thousands of new users since the tech giant changed its prompts in 2020. He explained:
"For search engines like us that are trying to actively allow consumers to switch, [or] choose an alternative, they're making it unreasonably complicated to do so and confusing consumers."
Meanwhile, with censorship and misinformation dominating many current topics, including the COVID-19 pandemic, Weinberg didn't elaborate on what specifically led to his decision to down-rank sites associated with Russian disinformation. He also didn't elaborate on what he considered to be Russian disinformation. Nonetheless, his tweet comes after the European Union recently announced it would ban the "Kremlin's media machine" for spreading propaganda justifying its invasion of Ukraine.
Since then, the internet industry has reacted by blocking access to Russian state-sponsored media outlets such as RT and Sputnik News for users in the EU. Likewise, Twitter has placed warning labels on tweets linking to Russian state media. (In 2017, Google News de-ranked RT and Sputnik News for allegedly spreading propaganda.)
Weinberg's decision to edit news on the situation in Ukraine didn't sit well with everyone. The reaction on Twitter was quick to point towards censorship. One user referenced—and questioned—DuckDuckGo's commitment to "unbiased search." Another wrote, "So you are censoring your users? DDG now decides what is or isn't misinformation? This decision should be left to the user."
Weinberg jumped to defend the company's decision, saying it was necessary to provide relevant search results over disinformation, tweeting to one user, "Search engines by definition try to put more relevant content higher and less relevant content lower—that's not censorship, it's search ranking relevancy." Still, it is uncertain what this move means for DuckDuckGo's future.
Shortly after DuckDuckGo's tweet announcing its position on what its users will view related to the war in Ukraine, the company sent a statement to PC Magazine explaining its decision to down-rank sites associated with Russian disinformation. The statement read:
"The primary utility of a search engine is to provide access to accurate information. Disinformation sites that deliberately put out false information to intentionally mislead people directly cut against that utility. Current examples are Russian state-sponsored media sites like RT and Sputnik. It's also important to note that down-ranking is different from censorship. We are simply using the fact that that these sites are engaging in active disinformation campaigns as a ranking signal that the content they produce is of lower quality, just like there are signals for spammy sites and other lower-quality content. In addition to this approach, for newsworthy topics we're also continuing to highlight reputable news coverage and reliable 'instant answers' at the top of our search results where they are seen and clicked the most. We're also in the process of thinking about other types of interventions."