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DuckDuckGo’s Privacy Browser Finally Lands on Desktop

DuckDuckGo’s Privacy Browser Finally Lands on Desktop

DuckDuckGo started out as a private search engine. Now its web browser is debuting on Macs to rival Chrome, Safari, Edge, and Brave.

When Google launched Chrome back in 2008, it changed the web overnight. Since then the web browser has become almost unstoppable: Chrome is one of Google’s most powerful data collection tools and the world’s most dominant browser. Right now 63 percent of people use Chrome on their phone, and the figure rises to 67 percent on desktop.

There are other options though—and the list of Chrome’s browser rivals just got a tiny bit longer. Today the privacy-oriented company DuckDuckGo is debuting its first desktop web browser, DuckDuckGo for Mac. The desktop app, which is being released in beta, comes years after the company launched its Android and iOS browsers, and it continues its push to create a suite of privacy-first web tools.

Since the launch of its anti-Google search engine back in 2008, DuckDuckGo’s web browser continues the company’s principle of not collecting your data, says Beah Burger-Lenehan, the product manager for the Mac app. “We don't track our users—that is our privacy policy,” Burger-Lenehan says. The browser uses DuckDuckGo’s private search engine as the default option, blocks ad trackers on each site you visit, and shows how many have been blocked. It also includes a built-in option for saving passwords, and it incorporates the company’s recently launched email protection, which blocks hidden trackers in the emails you are sent. “Everything that we build, we want to make as frictionless and simple and easy to understand,” Burger-Lenehan says. “And just to default to the most private thing without trade-offs in that experience.”

In the new browser, this includes taking on one of the internet’s most annoying experiences: cookie consent pop-ups, which were provoked by the introduction of the GDPR, the EU’s landmark data-privacy law. While browser extensions can help you avoid cookie pop-ups, DuckDuckGo’s browser automates the process. The first time you use the app you’ll be asked if you want to let it manage the pop-ups that appear. If you give it permission to do so, it will use Javascript to automatically set the cookie preferences on each site you visit and pick the options to “maximize privacy.” What this means in practice is that you don’t see cookie pop-ups. “This feature works on about 50 percent of cookie pop-ups that you might encounter,” Burger-Lenehan says, adding that the percentage should “significantly” increase when more people use the beta. I've been trying the DuckDuckGo desktop app for several days, and I feel like I got fewer cookie pop-ups than usual. Using the web is much more pleasant without them. The browser currently has a minimal interface, with few buttons or icons clogging up the view. Performance appears to be relatively quick. A fire emoji button—familiar to users of DuckDuckGo’s mobile apps—allows cookies and other data to be erased with a couple of clicks. For now, the rollout of the browser is limited. DuckDuckGo’s Mac app is being released as a beta that people can access by signing up to a private waiting list, through the company’s mobile app. The beta launch means DuckDuckGo can make changes and iron out bugs before its full release. At the moment, it does feel like some common browser features are missing. There isn’t a bookmark bar for easy access to saved sites or folders, but the company says it is working on this. There’s also no way to get a detailed history list of all the sites you’ve visited. There are different ways to access your browsing history, including a privacy feed of previous websites visited and autocompletes when you start typing a previously visited site, but these don’t feel comprehensive.

DuckDuckGo’s desktop apps have been in the works for some time. Burger-Lenehan says the company has been building the Mac app for more than a year and first started private tests with members of the public in October 2021. The company’s browser for Windows is being developed simultaneously, but its production is behind the Mac version, Burger-Lenehan says, adding that it will be available “soon.” DuckDuckGo for Mac joins a growing list of Chrome rivals. In recent years, browsers have piled privacy features into their offerings—most prominently blocking trackers, browser fingerprinting, and ads that follow you around the internet—to differentiate themselves from Google’s browser. Apple’s Safari, Firefox, Vivaldi, Opera, Brave, and DuckDuckGo’s mobile apps all block trackers to various degrees (although Tor is widely considered the most private browser).

What perhaps makes DuckDuckGo’s app stand out is how the browser is built. The vast majority of alternative web browsers—including Microsoft’s Edge, Brave, Vivaldi, and Opera—all use, to some extent, altered versions of Google’s browser code base, Chromium, and its underlying browser engine, Blink. Mozilla’s Firefox is one of the only other browsers that doesn’t use this Google-created setup.

DuckDuckGo shunned Chromium and instead uses Apple’s WebKit rendering system, which converts code into the web pages you see. “We wanted complete control over the code and the experience,” Burger-Lenehan says. That decision was taken in part because adapting Chromium would have meant the browser would inherit “cruft and clutter” from Google's design process, Burger-Lenehan says. Instead, “every bit of code is owned by DuckDuckGo and written by DuckDuckGo.”

While avoiding Chromium means DuckDuckGo can produce a slightly different product, it also means there’s more engineering work that needs to be done. The browser can’t tap into existing browser extensions built with Chromium that can help you search the web better or translate languages. Indeed, at the moment, DuckDuckGo’s desktop Mac app doesn’t support any browser extensions. This includes common password managers and other third-party tools you regularly use. (While the browser has a password manager, many experts recommend using a dedicated one.) Burger-Lenehan says it is working on ways to allow extensions to work with the browser in the future, and it is also working on updating its mobile apps so they can sync details, including passwords, with the desktop counterparts.

Unlike Brave and Firefox, both of which market themselves as privacy-focused Chrome alternatives, DuckDuckGo’s app is light on privacy settings that you can customize. Both the rival browsers include detailed options allowing privacy and security levels to be tweaked—one Firefox adaption allows all the most private options to be turned on; Brave also integrates Tor into its app. The simplicity is a deliberate choice from DuckDuckGo, Burger-Lenehan says.

The exact level of security and privacy you need online depends on your individual threat model; for instance, a human rights defender is more likely to be a target for hackers than, say, a dog trainer. Burger-Lenehan says DuckDuckGo wants to create products that don’t require people to change, or understand, too many settings. “We know that a very large swath of the internet population wants simple privacy,” Burger-Lenehan says. “We built this thing for a large, mainstream audience.”


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