DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg, whose company provides a competing search engine that promotes privacy protections, said during an interview Tuesday, Jan. 11, that Google is using scheming design features called "dark patterns" to trick users into quitting opposing products.
According to DuckDuckGo, Google for years has used deceptive notifications to bait users into disabling its competitor's browser extensions and to deter them from changing their default search engines on its web browser, Chrome. Weinberg added that Google in August 2020 adjusted the prompts to openly bump users away from jumping ship.
The changes include calling for users to answer whether they would rather "Change back to Google search" after adding the DuckDuckGo extension and showing users a larger, highlighted button when giving them the option to "Change it back" or not.
Weinberg noted that the subtle tweaks have produced a big impact.
Since Google implemented the changes, DuckDuckGo said it has suffered a 10 percent drop in how many new users it has been able to keep on its services on Chrome. DuckDuckGo added that has translated to hundreds of thousands of new users lost.
This is the first time the company is publicly speaking out about how the practice has affected its business, including what it says are millions in potential lost income since Google changed its prompts in 2020.
"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," Weinberg said.
Google spokeswoman Julie Tarallo McAlister said in a statement that Chrome users "can directly change their default search settings at any time," but they often fret "when they download an extension that unexpectedly changes these settings without their knowledge."
"This issue has been well-documented for a long time and is why we have long and clear disclosure requirements for extensions and shown users a notification if any extension tries to change their search settings – as a way to confirm their intent," McAlister said.
The notification appears regardless of the user's chosen search provider and that some other browsers have similar policies, McAlister added.
Weinberg said he hopes that by speaking out about Google's tactic, it will bolster calls for bipartisan antitrust legislation under consideration on Capitol Hill to ban major platforms from prioritizing their own products and hurting their rivals. (Related: How to avoid Google surveillance and protect your personal data.)
The proposals are just some of the many bills aimed at what U.S. lawmakers say are anti-competitive abuses by companies like Google. But the bills, filed by Sen. Amy Klobuchar and Rep. David Cicilline, boast broad support from Democrats and Republicans, making them among the most threatening for Silicon Valley titans and they are seen as bellwethers for the bigger antitrust effort.
Weinberg stated the dip in user retention through their extension on Chrome, which was earlier unreported, is one of the most direct pieces of evidence they have observed about how Google's policies have harmed their business.
"I think it really helps to make it concrete and show some very specific examples of where things are happening," Weinberg said during a 30-minute video interview.
And it is a finding that could also give as fodder for state and federal enforcers as they move ahead with their antitrust lawsuits against the tech giant.
The Department of Justice in October 2020 filed a huge lawsuit alleging that Google violated several federal antitrust laws through its search practices. Dozens of state attorneys general in December of that year followed suit by filing a separate antitrust complaint against the tech titan. Google has disputed accusations that it stifles competition, saying that the lawsuits are false.
DuckDuckGo had earlier released an update to its existing Google Chrome browser extension, which it says will prevent a new tracking technology in the browser.
The extension blocks Federated Learning of Cohorts or FLoC, a feature Google is testing that tracks Chrome users by distributing them into groups based on their interests and demographics.
Google said that it will stop using third-party cookies and block other companies from using them in Chrome. Those cookies are the small files that appear in your browser to let companies know about your online activities as you go from one site to another.
Google added that it rolled out FLoC as a way for the Chrome browser to collect the information needed to target consumers with personalized ads once third-party cookies are eliminated.
Privacy advocates welcomed the end of third-party cookies because it halts one of the main ways consumers are monitored by a wide brand of companies, but they argued that the move removes one privacy problem by introducing a new one.
The group said Google will continue tracking consumers although in a slightly more discreet way, and the change will likely consolidate more data in Google's hands.
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