U.S. search engine DuckDuckGo eliminated a gap in its ability to block Microsoft-owned tracking scripts on third-party websites in August 2022, but an outdated headline is being recirculated to suggest that a DuckDuckGo deal exists with Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates to track search-engine users.
Independent experts say that DuckDuckGo blocks known tracking scripts from loading to prevent vulnerable personal identifiers from being exposed, including Microsoft-owned scripts. A separate partnership with Microsoft for advertising on DuckDuckGo’s search results page is limited to ad placements, not tracking users or building profiles, a DuckDuckGo spokesperson said.
Users sharing the headline, “Google Lite: DuckDuckGo Signs Secret Deal with Bill Gates to Track Users Online” in April 2023 can be seen (here) and (here).
The headline belonged to a story that first appeared on NewsPunch on May 25, 2022 (here), which now redirects to The People’s Voice (the two are affiliated) (here) (here).
The original article was published before DuckDuckGo eliminated, in August 2022, an exception that did permit some Microsoft-owned tracking scripts on websites to send data to Microsoft.
Web trackers can monitor the flow of visitors on a website and analyze user data, and they include cookies and fingerprinting, as well as pieces of code known as “tracking scripts,” which are embedded on websites (here).
Trackers from a third-party (third-party tracking scripts) function on websites visited by a user after clicking a link from a search browser. An example would be a Microsoft tracking script on a furniture-seller’s website that a user visits via a link from search results on a search engine like Google, or DuckDuckGo.
These tracking scripts can gather user data such as IP addresses even before fully loading on a site, when most tracker-blockers are not yet in effect.
MICROSOFT AND DUCKDUCKGO
Kamyl Bazbaz, vice president of communications at DuckDuckGo, said the company’s advertising partnership with Microsoft serves ads alongside search results on the DuckDuckGo search page, adding that the partnership doesn’t allow Microsoft to build user profiles based on ad clicks (here).
Prior to August 2022, however, terms of that partnership prevented DuckDuckGo browsers from blocking Microsoft tracking scripts on third-party websites reached through search results, as explained by DuckDuckGo CEO Gabriel Weinberg in a May 2022 Reddit post (here).
The exception was also described in news coverage at the time from Search Engine Journal (here).
In August 2022, DuckDuckGo announced that it had eliminated this carve-out and Microsoft tracking scripts would no longer be able to load on websites reached via its browsing apps and extensions. “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,” the company said in a statement (here)
Whether browser privacy protections ever permit user tracking is beyond the scope of this fact check. Independent technology experts offered context on why blocking all tracking scripts can be challenging.
BLOCKING SCRIPTS IS COMPLEX
DuckDuckGo has mostly upheld its pledge to maintain user privacy, experts told Reuters. Still, some trackers can evade such blocklists.
Because some trackers can dodge blocklists, it “creates a sort of cat-and-mouse game for organizations and tools looking to block trackers,” said Dominic Sellitto, a clinical assistant professor of management science and systems at the University at Buffalo School of Management (here).
“The idea is that they use a list of known trackers that the DuckDuckGo browser simply won’t allow to load,” Sellitto said in an email. “The tricky part here is that tracking users around the Internet is quite lucrative, so the organizations that make and use trackers have a vested interest in pivoting to evade blocklists like DuckDuckGo’s.”
It is feasible for DuckDuckGo to block Microsoft tracking scripts from other sites visited via DuckDuckGo, said Tracy Mitrano, distinguished visiting professor at the Cornell University Department of Information Science (here), citing as an example Apple having prevented Facebook from running such scripts.
“I’m not saying it’s 100% foolproof. But for some 90% or 95% of the time, it’s going to work,” she said.
Mitrano added that DuckDuckGo is, for the most part, regarded as keeping its promise in not profiling users, and is distinguished from Google and Bing for not collecting user information to sell ads.
“Yes, (DuckDuckGo makes) its money on selling advertisements,” she said. “But it doesn’t do that individual profiling. So it’s not running those scripts to get all that information about the individual.”
Microsoft declined to comment.
NewsPunch did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.
Missing context. Users are sharing an outdated story without the context that DuckDuckGo has eliminated a gap in its tracker-blocking feature that previously allowed some Microsoft tracking scripts on third-party websites to load.
This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work to fact-check social media posts (here).
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