For a long time, Startpage has been one of the go-to search-engines for anyone who was put off Google by its tendency to hoover up every iota of data about you and then use it to try and sell things to you.
But now Startpage finds itself with new owners and, unfortunately, a lack of information about them means that, for the time being at least, there are big question-marks hanging over the site.
Who is Privacy One Group?
In the middle of last month, Startpage announced on their website that they had new investors in the form of Privacy One Group Ltd.
The announcement began with some positive reinforcement and the words “We believe a more private internet is better, and that you deserve the option to search the internet while keeping your personal data private.”
They then slipped in the news that Privacy One Group had been involved in Startpage since January. The question most people then began asking was, who exactly is this mysterious Privacy One Group?
The only clue given in the press release was that they are a separate operating unit of System1. So, who is System1? This is where things start to get a little troubling.
A little research shows that System1 is a pay-per-click advertising company. A recent financing round revealed more about one of their key products which is about as far from the online privacy of Startpage as you can get.
It is “a pre-targeting platform that identifies and unlocks consumer intent across channels including social, native, email, search, market research and lead generation rather than relying solely on what consumers enter into search boxes.”
The conclusion that many people have leapt to is that System1 plan to deploy this system on Startpage. If that is what happens, Startpage will be moving a long way from the privacy-friendly search engine it currently is.
Scrambling to address concerns
These concerns have been doing the rounds on social media for some time now and, of course, the people at Startpage and Privacy One Group are aware of them. With social media awash with theory and counter-theory, they had little choice but to try and manage the situation.
Their response has been to host a Q&A session on their Subreddit and also publish a letter from the Startpage CEO, Robert E. Beens.
In both of these, Startpage stressed that their privacy policies remained the same as they had always been. They are adamant that they do not collect user data and will not start doing so. The former management still hold a stake in the company and insist they remain “committed to their privacy mission”.
But the blunt truth is that nothing in either the Q&A or the letter varied much from the rather bland initial announcement and many questions that people have been asking remain unanswered.
Until Startpage and Privacy One Group become more transparent about the new ownership model and future plans for the site, privacy purists and anyone who uses their site primarily for the privacy protections it offers is likely to look elsewhere.
There are still a number of things we do not know.
What percentage of Startpage and its holding company is now controlled by System1 though its Privacy One Group subsidiary? It could be 10%, it could be 99%. No-one has said.
What access will System1 and Privacy One Group have to the Startpage data and that of its users?
What is Privacy One Group? We know it is a subsidiary of System1, but we still have no information about where it is registered, which country it is under the jurisdiction of, or who is pulling the strings.
Until both Startpage and Privacy One Group come clean about these basic facts, their lack of transparency is likely to cause them trouble with their key demographic.
Should you use Startpage at the moment?
A number of sites are already recommending their users avoid using Startpage until we begin to understand more about the new ownership and how the site is going to work.
We share many of these concerns but at the moment there is no evidence that Startpage has changed its privacy policies or practices in any way.
As such, we would still recommend privacy-conscious users opt for Startpage over the more data-hungry search engines like Google and Bing. These are browsers that we know collect all of your data and use it for targeted advertising and more.
But we will be unable to give it our full support until these questions are answered and for that reason, we are more likely to point users towards the likes of DuckDuckGo and Brave in the immediate future.
If Startpage is going down the data-collection route, it is sacrificing its one main USP. This is the main reason most people use it and this would seem like a suicidal step to take.
There are other sites out there offering the same type of privacy benefits and if Startpage can no longer guarantee its users privacy, these sites can expect to pick up their users sooner rather than later.