DuckDuckGo Browser to Block Microsoft Trackers Following Backlash

DuckDuckGo website under a magnifying glass

Following a backlash from users and privacy advocates, search engine DuckDuckGo has announced that it will start blocking Microsoft’s trackers on third-party websites.

While the privacy-oriented search engine actively blocks embedded ad tracker scripts from Facebook and Google, it hadn’t stopped such scripts from Microsoft and its Bing and LinkedIn services. Since DuckDuckGo uses Bing as a source for its private search results, the company said they could not apply their 3rd-Party Tracker Loading Protection to its fullest extent on the tech giant.

In a blog post on Friday, the company said it is no longer bound by this restriction and will start to roll out the new Microsoft blocks over the next week on its mobile apps (iOS and Android) and browser extensions. Beta apps should follow by September 1st, 2022, the company said.

DuckDuckGo Responds to User Backlash

In May 2021, security researcher Zach Edwards found that DuckDuckGo did not prevent data from flowing to Microsoft domains such as LinkedIn and Bing. Critics noted this was particularly disparaging considering the company prides itself on privacy.

Though the company never hid its “search syndication agreement” with Microsoft, DuckDuckGo also never publicly disclosed that it allowed Microsoft’s trackers prior to Edwards’ discovery.

“For non-search tracker blocking (eg in our browser), we block most third-party trackers,” Gabriel Weinberg, DuckDuckGo’s CEO said in a tweet. “Unfortunately our Microsoft search syndication agreement prevents us from doing more to Microsoft-owned properties. However, we have been continually pushing and expect to be doing more soon.”

Now, Weinberg has seemingly come through on this statement, as the company will extend its tracking protection to Microsoft’s trackers.

DuckDuckGo to Allow Trackers for Measuring Ad Efficacy

Weinberg clarified that the changes will not block scripts for which load right after a user clicks on DuckDuckGo’s search ads. These scripts are anonymous and let advertisers check for the effectiveness of the ads, according to DuckDuckGo, and do not allow Microsoft to profile its users.

“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 requests from loading on the advertiser’s website following DuckDuckGo ad clicks, but these requests are blocked in all other contexts,” Weinberg said.

Users have the option of avoiding this by disabling ads in DuckDuckGo’s search settings.

How Does DuckDuckGo Prevent Third-Party Tracking?

DuckDuckGo is a privacy-first search engine that keeps its users anonymous and does not track their activity. The search engine offers what it calls 3rd Party Tracker Loading Protection, which prevents third-party trackers from loading on websites that users visit. The truth of browsing the internet is that most websites are embedded with third-party trackers.

When you type in a URL into your browser’s address bar, websites load several other URLs while your destination is loading. More often than not, these third parties track your information. While many websites contain blockers or options to prevent third-party cookies, they do so after the destination website has loaded. At this point, trackers have already gained access to information such as their visitors’ IP address.

DuckDuckGo prevents these trackers from loading, thereby affording a higher degree of protection compared to most of its alternatives. This protection comes with all its apps and browser extensions. However, it comes at a cost, as many websites depend on code from third parties to function optimally. As a consequence, users may experience usability issues.

Technology policy researcher
Prateek is a technology policy researcher with a background in law. His areas of interest include data protection, privacy, digital currencies, and digital literacy. Outside of his research interests, Prateek is an avid reader and is engaged in projects on sustainable farming practices in India.