More Privacy and Transparency for DuckDuckGo Web Tracking Protections

Hacker News - Fri Aug 5 13:04

Our vision at DuckDuckGo is to raise the standard of trust online. Raising that standard means maximizing the privacy we offer by default, being transparent about how our privacy protections work, and doing our best to make the Internet less creepy. Recently, I’ve heard from a number of users and understand that we didn’t meet their expectations around one of our browser’s web tracking protections. So today we are announcing more privacy and transparency around DuckDuckGo’s web tracking protections.

More Privacy: Expanding 3rd-Party Tracker Loading Protection to Include Microsoft

Over the next week, we will expand the third-party tracking scripts we block from loading on websites to include scripts from Microsoft in our browsing apps (iOS and Android) and our browser extensions (Chrome, Firefox, Safari, Edge and Opera), with beta apps to follow in the coming month. This expands our 3rd-Party Tracker Loading Protection, which blocks identified tracking scripts from Facebook, Google, and other companies from loading on third-party websites, to now include third-party Microsoft tracking scripts. This web tracking protection is not offered by most other popular browsers by default and sits on top of many other DuckDuckGo protections. We explain how this works differently with DuckDuckGo advertising below.

Websites often embed scripts from other companies (commonly called “third-party scripts”) that automatically load when you visit their site. For example, the most prevalent third-party script is Google Analytics, which helps websites understand how their sites are being used. But typically Google can also use this information to profile you outside of the site where the information originated. Most browsers’ default tracking protection focuses on cookie and fingerprinting protections that only restrict third-party tracking scripts after they load in your browser. Unfortunately, that level of protection leaves information like your IP address and other identifiers sent with loading requests vulnerable to profiling. Our 3rd-Party Tracker Loading Protection helps address this vulnerability, by stopping most 3rd-party trackers from loading in the first place, providing significantly more protection.

Previously, we were limited in how we could apply our 3rd-Party Tracker Loading Protection on Microsoft tracking scripts due to a policy requirement related to our use of Bing as a source for our private search results. We’re glad this is no longer the case. We have not had, and do not have, any similar limitation with any other company.

Microsoft scripts were never embedded in our search engine or apps, which do not track you. Websites insert these scripts for their own purposes, and so they never sent any information to DuckDuckGo. Since we were already restricting Microsoft tracking through our other web tracking protections, like blocking Microsoft’s third-party cookies in our browsers, this update means we’re now doing much more to block trackers than most other browsers.

DuckDuckGo Advertising: Working Toward Private Ad Conversions

Advertising on DuckDuckGo is done in partnership with Microsoft. Viewing ads on DuckDuckGo is anonymous, and Microsoft has committed to not profile our users on ad clicks: “when you click on a Microsoft-provided ad that appears on DuckDuckGo, Microsoft Advertising does not associate your ad-click behavior with a user profile. It also does not store or share that information other than for accounting purposes.”

To evaluate whether an ad on DuckDuckGo is effective, advertisers want to know if their ad clicks turn into purchases (conversions). To see this within Microsoft Advertising, they use Microsoft scripts from the bat.bing.com domain. Currently, if an advertiser wants to detect conversions for their own ads that are shown on DuckDuckGo, 3rd-Party Tracker Loading Protection will not block bat.bing.com requests from loading on the advertiser’s website following DuckDuckGo ad clicks, but these requests are blocked in all other contexts. For anyone who wants to avoid this, it's possible to disable ads in DuckDuckGo search settings.

To eventually replace the reliance on bat.bing.com for evaluating ad effectiveness, we’ve started working on an architecture for private ad conversions that can be externally validated as non-profiling. DuckDuckGo isn’t alone in trying to solve this issue; Safari is working on Private Click Measurement (PCM) and Firefox is working on Interoperable Private Attribution (IPA). We hope these efforts can help move the entire digital ad industry forward to making privacy the default. We think this work is important because it means we can improve the advertising-based business model that countless companies rely on to provide free services, making it more private instead of throwing it out entirely.

More Transparency: Public Block List & New Web Tracking Protections Help Page

Our browser extensions and non-beta apps are already open source, as is our Tracker Radar – the data set of trackers and other third-party web activity we identify through crawling. We’ve now also made our tracker protection list publicly available, so folks can see for themselves what we’re blocking and report any issues. We’ve also updated the Privacy Dashboard within our apps and extensions to show more information about third-party requests. Using the updated Privacy Dashboard, users can see which third-party requests have been blocked from loading and which other third-party requests have loaded, with reasons for both when available.

To further deliver on our commitment to transparency, we’ve posted a new help page that offers a comprehensive explanation of all the web tracking protections we provide across platforms. Users now have one place to look if they want to understand the different kinds of web privacy protections we offer on the platforms they use. This page also explains how different web tracking protections are offered based on what is technically possible on each platform, as well as what’s in development for this part of our product roadmap.

I’ve been building DuckDuckGo as an independent company for almost 15 years. After all this time, I believe more than ever that the majority of people online would choose to be more private if they could press a privacy “easy button.”  That’s why our product vision is to pack as much privacy as we can into one package. We’re committed for the long haul to make simple privacy protection available to all, and will continue striving to strengthen the quality, understanding, and confidence in our product.