Privacy search engine StartPage has sold to ad tech company System1

Will the search engine remain as private as it once was?


Startpage.com, a search engine that has been billing itself for a long time as an alternative aiming to trump the dominant market forces on the internet by providing a counter-balance to the all present, privacy-invading mainstream options, is now being part-acquired by System1.

System1 is an advertising company – a keyword pay-per-click advertising company, to be more precise.

“One of Startpage's key differentiators from other private search engines is that we partner with Google for our results,” the company said while announcing the takeover.

More specifically, it is Privacy One Group Ltd. that has invested in Startpage.com – and their business relationship goes back to January 2019.

“Privacy One Group is a separate operating unit of System1, focused entirely on user privacy,” the blog post said.

If you weren't sure what to make of that, there's this bit from the blog post:

“We know you want to spend less time searching, and more time finding.”

Long story short – an advertising company with a separate operating unit now owns an apparently strongly privacy-focused search engine that partners with Google. And if you spend a lot of your time “searching” – wouldn't it be great to instead be “finding.”

But Startpage spends no more effort addressing this collection of potentially life-changing or at least life-affecting assertions, as far as any journalist, researcher, or anybody else who spends a lot of time searching in the hope of finding may be concerned. Instead, it's mostly PR copy from here on – Startpage announces it will “continue to be headquartered and operated in the Netherlands” – and that fact alone apparently “ensures all of our users worldwide are protected by Dutch and EU privacy laws.”

But are they really? There have recently been major questions raised concerning some of the world's biggest social media/tech giants, specifically in terms of the reach national jurisdictions have over them when it comes to protecting, or indeed, policing data and content.

Startpage's mission statement has been to differentiate itself from every another search engine “community” by focusing on user privacy. That meant storing no “personal data: no IP addresses, no personal user data, no search history, no tracking cookies.”

If you put your faith in this proprietary solution, the company informed you that while other search engines protections end “once you click to another website” – Startpage's proprietary sauce promises to make sure users can continue to browse in private “by viewing websites linked from Startpage's search results with true privacy for as long as they like.”

Judging by the announcement, Startpage has had “a fascinating story and a long operating history” that begun in the late 1990s – to then resurrect in 2017 after merging with Ixquick.

It was certainly a good time to cite privacy as a selling point for a search company – but it's now 2019, and the outcome seems to be that of a boutique privacy search engine acquired by a pay-per-click ad outfit.


Didi Rankovic

Didi Rankovic is an experienced online journalist, editor, and translator, with a career spanning over ten years writing for major a English-language website in Serbia, and previously working as translator for international organizations and peacekeepers in the Balkans. Rankovic is passionate about free and open source tech and is a head contributor for Reclaim The Net, focusing on lead stories. [email protected]