Ghostery’s Making a Privacy Browser—and Ad-Free Search Engine

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The internet runs on advertising, and that includes search engines. Google brought in $26 billion of search revenue in the most recent quarter alone. Yes, billion. As that business has grown, it’s reshaped what search looks like. Year after year, ads have gobbled up more space on its results pages, pushing organic results further out of view. Which is why using Ghostery’s new ad-free search engine and desktop browser, even in their pre-beta form, feels at once like a throwback to a simpler internet and a glimpse of a future where browsing that puts results ahead of revenue is once again possible.

If you’re familiar with Ghostery already, it’s likely through its incarnation as a popular open-source browser extension that blocks trackers and ads. It also maintains a mobile browser for Android and iOS, the former of which has been installed over a million times. Over 7 million people use Ghostery products; a single-digit percentage of them have paid for one of the company’s subscription services. Earlier this year, the company saw an opportunity to expand on its core mission of making digital privacy available to the masses.

“We’ve been building the extensions for a long time,” says Ghostery president Jeremy Tillman. “But at the end of the day you’re playing by somebody else’s rules. We thought that we could do a lot more if we played by our own rules.”

Courtesy of Ghostery

That “somebody else” almost always means Google. The desktop browser and internet search races are not what one might call competitive. As of October, Google’s Chrome browser claimed 69 percent market share; its closest competition, Microsoft’s Edge and Mozilla’s Firefox, hovered at around 7.5 percent, according to NetMarketShare. From month to month, the numbers barely change. And that dominance pales in comparison to search, where analytics firm StatCounter says Google fields close to 93 percent of all queries.

Which is to say that building an alternative to Google these days can feel like a quixotic undertaking. German startup Cliqz, which acquired Ghostery in 2017, abandoned its efforts to build a privacy-first search engine from scratch in April. “In the long run, we have no chance against an overpowering opponent such as Google, which dominates the market in every aspect,” wrote Cliqz cofounder Jean-Paul Schmetz at the time. “We are deeply sorry to say goodbye to colleagues who have shown great commitment and passion in achieving our vision.”

A bleak outlook. But Ghostery has taken a different route. Rather than rolling out its own search engine or browser, it will instead layer its privacy technology atop Firefox and the Bing Web Search API. The beta should launch by mid-January at the latest; those interested in testing it out can sign up here. The ultimate goal isn’t to overthrow Google. It’s to reimagine what the internet demands of its users.

“Nobody delivers ad-free private search today,” says Tillman. “As a first step we thought that was pretty unique. If you’re like, I want privacy and also I just hate ads, Ghostery search is the only option out there for you.”

Nothing’s free in this life, and Ghostery is no different. Whereas Google’s ad business subsidizes its free services like search and Chrome, Ghostery’s ad-free search requires a Ghostery Plus subscription, which costs $5 per month. The company is working on an ad-supported version that anyone can use for free, a model that would resemble the already popular privacy search engine DuckDuckGo, which places ads contextually rather than based on user behavior. (The business models run the gamut; the privacy-focused browser Brave blocks ads, but it has experimented with paying users who opt to view them.)

Courtesy of Ghostery

While they’re launching at the same time, Ghostery browser and search aren’t inextricable. The Ghostery browser doesn’t lock you into the company’s search engine; you can choose from six options to use as your default—yes, including Google. Likewise, Tillman says the next phase of growth will include promoting Ghostery search as an option in more established browsers.

Actually using the Ghostery browser and search engine in tandem, even at this early stage, is a refreshingly zippy if minimalist experience. That’s partly because of the foundation that Firefox and Bing provide. “We think that the core of the browser is really good,” says Tillman. “We take Firefox and then we strip it down.” That means no integrations like Pocket, which comes standard on Firefox proper. And privacy-friendly settings that might be optional on Mozilla’s browser are turned all the way up by default in Ghostery. (It also comes with a private browsing mode that goes to 11. “It’s much more aggressive,” says Tillman, “to the point where things get a little unusable.”)

Over the course of a few days of playing with the pre-beta as my daily driver, I found the Ghostery browser itself to be stable, with all the features you’d expect given its Firefox foundation. In addition to the stock privacy and anti-tracking features you can already find in the Ghostery extension, it takes advantage of Firefox features like Redirect Tracking Protection, which wipes away cookies and site data every 24 hours from sites you don’t visit often. It also enables advanced features like dynamic first-party isolation and protection against tracker-cloaking technology by default. Basically, it makes it as hard as possible for ad companies to follow you around the web.

My experience with search is a little harder to go on. The iteration I used didn’t have basic features like image, map, news, and video returns, and I ran into an error message whenever I tried to navigate to the second page of results. Tillman says that by the time the beta launches, Ghostery’s search product will include image and video categories, and will soon after add staples like shopping. Presumably whatever bug kept me stuck on page one will be squashed by then as well.

As for the results themselves, they were fine! A couple of years ago I used Bing extensively and exclusively, and found that while it had plenty of annoying ticks it actually served up decent results. If anything, by stripping away all of the frippery and bloat that makes Bing a slog, Ghostery offers a stirring defense of that engine’s core capabilities. Eventually I missed being able to drill down to news results specifically, or being able to search for images at all—again, that’ll be there in the final build—but honestly there was something refreshing about searching for something on the internet and finding link after link after link about what you are looking for, instead of ads and knowledge panels and AMP carousels. So this is what it feels like when a search engine actually wants to send you to another site.

Eventually, Ghostery plans to integrate its ad-tracking tech even further, perhaps allowing you to filter out sites that have more than 20 trackers from results, or ranking pages based on privacy-friendly metrics.

Ghostery’s browser and search engine won’t be for everyone. Established browsers like Safari and, yes, Firefox already go a long way toward providing some of the the protections Ghostery promises. Even Chrome plans to phase out third-party cookies eventually. The Ghostery extension also continues to provide plenty of cover for dedicated Chrome users. But there’s a clear and present need for an internet that respects your privacy better than the current one does. A number of companies are trying to build that future, including DuckDuckGo and Brave and the Tor Project, among others. With its impending expansion, Ghostery has solidified its role as one of those architects.


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