DuckDuckGo does not block all Microsoft trackers

A trade agreement with Microsoft prevents DuckDuckGo from blocking all trackers. Image: Shutterstock

Standalone smartphone browser apps from DuckDuckGo — a company that claims to be privacy-focused — include minor exemptions for specific Microsoft product trackers thanks to a trade agreement.

Privacy researcher Zach Edwards discovered that the DuckDuckGo browser failed to stop trackers from Microsoft-owned social site LinkedIn and search engine Bing when accessing third-party sites.

“I tested the so-called DuckDuckGo private browser for iOS and Android, but neither version blocked data transfers to Microsoft’s LinkedIn + Bing ads when viewing Facebook’s workplace.[.]com,” Edwards wrote in a Twitter feed tuesday.

He backed up his claims with screenshots showing the failure of the DuckDuckGo browser to block requests from Microsoft products, as well as links proving that the developers of DuckDuckGo know full well that the requests come from Microsoft’s cross-site trackers.

DuckDuckGo is open about its relationship with various search providers such as Microsoft, which it uses to serve non-personalized ads.

Like Google, ads on DuckDuckGo appear at the top of a search, but they’re designed to serve entirely based on the context of a search.

DuckDuckGo’s point of difference is that it does not profile users to provide personalized search results or advertisements.

That said, its ads are fully managed by Microsoft’s advertising service and some of its results are delivered through Microsoft Bing.

DuckDuckGo claims that its working relationship with Microsoft does not break its promise to provide a no-track search engine because it guarantees that “Microsoft Advertising does not associate your click-through behavior with any user profile.”

What Edwards suspected he discovered was evidence that DuckDuckGo’s ability to provide a tracking-free, privacy-focused browser had been compromised by its relationship with Microsoft.

“The DDG [DuckDuckGo] browser stops data streams from tons of domains,” he wrote. “Except DDG’s #1 advertising technology partner.”

Gabriel Weinberg, CEO and Founder of DuckDuckGo, jumped in the wire to defend his business and in doing so confirmed that, yes, the deals with Microsoft mean some trackers get a free pass.

“For blocking non-search related trackers (e.g. in our browser), we block most third-party trackers,” Weinberg wrote.

“Unfortunately, our Microsoft search syndication agreement prevents us from doing more for Microsoft-owned properties.”

Weinberg further admitted to being crippled by confidentiality clauses in those agreements that make it contractually problematic for his company to disclose exactly what DuckDuckGo let Microsoft get away with.

“We have been working tirelessly behind the scenes to modify these requirements,” he said.

“Although our syndication agreement also contains a confidentiality clause which prevents the disclosure of details.”

The revelation that DuckDuckGo was contractually obligated to let Microsoft trackers through its filters sparked ire from privacy advocates and saw Weinberg busy posting lengthy responses in a critical context. Pirate News Feed about the story.

In this thread, he eloquently explained to curious users the importance of privacy and why it is the point of differentiation between DuckDuckGo and other tech companies.

“I view privacy as a safeguard against coercion,” he wrote.

“Yes, it protects personal information, but that’s not the real point. The real point is autonomy – the freedom to make decisions without coercion.

“From this point of view, in addition to helping to reduce identity theft, commercial exploitation, ideological manipulation, discrimination, polarization, etc., it also helps to reduce self-policing, and just the general loss of freedom.”

Weinberg’s description of the need to offer an alternative to ad tech’s data monitoring model also partly explains the disappointed outcry when it was found that he had compromised his goals somewhat by going to bed with Microsoft.

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