Who owns DuckDuckGo? All about the origin and relevance of the privacy-centered search engine

By Sonam Peldon — ON Feb 21, 2022
DuckDuckGo
Jakub Porzycki/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Pitted against Google as its prominent competitor, DuckDuckGo offers the one thing that Google fails to provide; protecting the privacy of a user’s digital footprint. The company proclaims their privacy policy on their website as “We don’t collect or share personal information”.

In a span of 13 years, the relatively obscure search engine has grown from witnessing a few thousand daily searches to hundreds of million daily searches today. It differs from other tech giants as it does not collect or store any of the users’ personal information and search history. Moreover, unlike other tech companies found in Silicon Valley, the headquarters of DuckDuckGo is based in Paoli, Pennsylvania.

The chief executive of DuckDuckGo, Gabriel Weinberg, founded the company in 2008 and owns it to this day

Gabriel Weinberg
Gabriel Weinberg Gabriel Weinberg, CEO & Founder Of DuckDuckGo (Photo By duckduckgo/instagram)

The origin of DuckDuckGo’s founding dates back to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania in February 2008. Gabriel Weinberg had just sold his now-obsolete social network site ‘NamesDatabase’ to classmate.com for $10 million. On the lookout for a new passion project, Weinberg decided to devise a search site.

In an interview with Forbes, he mentioned that he found the idea of “bringing together those [different source] sites in an interesting way” appealing. He also dismissed claims of starting DuckDuckGo as a competitor for Google and said that it rather started as a way of polishing Google search results of that time, saying;

“I started out not by trying to start a competitor. I just started trying to improve my Google results. There was removing spam. Back at that time, there were a lot of bad results. I was also adding in a bunch of instant answers. Wikipedia wasn’t coming up at the top so I added that… Then I added privacy to that. I didn’t think about it from a business perspective at the time. I initially put it out there to see if other people would like.”

Although the privacy search engine’s worldwide search market share is just shy of one percent and may be negligible compared to Google’s market share of over 90 percent, DuckDuckGo’s profit trajectory has been on the rise since 2014. For instance, according to the Tech Republic, DuckDuckGo’s revenue crossed over $100 million in 2021.

Nonetheless, Weinberg admitted to The New York Times that most people are reluctant to change their habits, or in this case their browser, despite the glaring privacy concerns.

“It’s not as easy [for people] to switch [to DuckDuckGo] as we’d like it to be. There is a lot of inertia drawing people back to the existing system,” he said.

The previously self-funded DuckDuckGo opened up to funding from Union Square Ventures in 2011 and subsequently from OMERS Ventures in 2018

Gabriel Weinberg (Photo By Michelle Gustafson/The New York Times)

Since the launch of DuckDuckGo in 2008, Weinberg self-funded the search engine for three and a half years and was the sole developer and producer of content. Following the birth of his son in 2009, he became a stay-at-home dad and continued working on it. In 2011, he sought funding from the venture capital firm based in New York City, Union Square Ventures, and other angel investors.

“At the end of 2010, all the iterative work on the project became better. Something clicked and people started to switch to it. Then in 2011, I started to treat it as more of a real thing, and at the end of 2011, I went and raised $3 million from Union Square Venture,” Weinberg told Forbes.

Likewise, Fred Wilson, the managing partner at Union Square Ventures, elaborated why his firm decided to invest in DuckDuckGo, which during the time was a search engine startup with negligible reach compared to established search engines such as Google and Bing. VentureBeat reported that Wilson had told the TechCrunch Disrupt conference;

“We didn’t invest in it because we thought it would beat Google. We invested in it because there is a need for a private search engine. We did it for the Internet anarchists, people that hang out on Reddit and Hacker News.”

In 2018, the Canadian public pension fund OMERS Ventures financed $10 million to DuckDuckGo owing to their shared vision about privacy and to meet the global demands for online privacy. John Ruffolo, the chief executive of OMERS Ventures told The Globe and Mail that they “went out very aggressively” to invest in DuckDuckGo and gave his reasons as;

“We have been deeply concerned over the misuse of data, privacy, and data sovereignty and we believe the public is starting to realize the cost of what they were giving up. [DuckDuckGo] is the leading company that’s figured out a different business model… It’s proving that, in search, it’s possible to both make money and respect privacy and data sovereignty.”

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, the offices of DuckDuckGo have doubled from 65 employees in 2019 to 129 employees in 2021. Moreover, some of the newly joined investors of the company include notable names such as Tim Berners-Lee (the inventor of the World Wide Web), entrepreneur Mitch Kapor, and Brian Acton (the co-founder of WhatsApp).

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