If Google is Goliath then Qwant sees itself as David.
The French search engine, recently integrated into a custom edition of Mozilla Firefox, protects the anonymity of 21 million people across 30 countries who use the search engine monthly, which is70 percent higher than where the company was a year ago. This month, they're also launching a mobile app , which will allow people to use a mobile search engine that does not track them and embeds a secure web browser.
The search engine was co-founded in 2013 by Eric Leandri, a tech entrepreneur who has a background in network security, and Jean Manuel Rozan, an investor who is a former bank trader. Today, the two co-founders have a team of over 50 in their offices in Paris, Nice and Rouen and are growing to introduce this privacy-protected search engine as an alternative to Google.
"We didn't want to offer just another search engine," said Leandri. "We had values to stand for; respecting our users' privacy by forbidding ourselves to track what they do or search online. It has been a constraint put on our engineering and marketing teams from day one, and they embrace it because it is both challenging and rewarding."
Qwant further distinguishes itself with its search categories, which go beyond the typical news, images and video tabs to include a social media category (that collects results from Twitter only) and a music tab that sources albums and songs from iTunes. Qwant also has an artist page for each major pop star, including recent news on them and social media-related postings that relate to your search (search "green trees" on Qwant and it brings up Al Green's latest album). It recently introduced a section called "Notebooks," which creates profiles for users and offers a page of multimedia message boards where users can upload their own photos, videos and texts to comment and discuss. There are 31 different categories like jobs, cars, gastronomy, health and hobbies. A search engine for children called Qwant Junior is also up and running.
In August, Qwant was added to the German, French and British versions of Firefox for desktop, as well as Firefox for Android and for iOS. The company's add-on extension with Firefox has roughly 5,000 weekly downloads, over 140,000 downloads in the past three months.
"We are at a turning point where we as citizens, internet users and consumers have to choose to which extent we have a right to privacy, and to which extent we feel free to exercise it," Leandri said. "You have to think of the internet not only as a means of communication, but more and more as a surrogate brain; things that would have been kept within the impenetrable boundaries of your own mind, or in the sanctuary of your own home, are now sent on servers for the world or a few companies to see. Everything we do is increasingly stored and can be retrieved on demand."
Even where there are privacy options, Leandri warns of "false choices." For example, some companies might offer user privacy and tailored services but in the fine print, your data is still collected for the future. "They pretend that you can't have artificial intelligence without giving up control over your data, but for the most part that is a lie," said Leandri. "It certainly is faster and easier to exploit people's privacy to educate AIs, but we believe there are and will be alternative solutions."
Leandri worries most about the growing dependence on AI, or the "digital assistants" that anticipate our needs. "The more you get used to it, the less you will wonder how and why an AI recommends a certain path instead of another, which story to read, what products to buy," he said. "Any company with such power may be tempted to abuse it, but even with the best intentions, the effects that such tailoring algorithms can have are hard to predict."
However, they make their profits through pay-per-click websites, having agreements with a Berlin-based affiliate internet marketing firm called Zanox, which connects users with commercial websites (Qwant earns between44 to 88 cents per click), they also have planned partnerships with TripAdvisor (details are yet to be announced) and eBay. Qwant profited by selling20 percent of its shares to Axel Springer,a right-leaning German publishing house for $6 million in 2014 (the publishing house's chief executive Mathias Döpfner has been publicly critical about Google's power).
Qwant tries to keep its integrity despite making a profit.
"We won't try and lead you to a specific service instead of a better one because we would have business interests in doing so, or filter out results based on some political or commercial agenda," said Leandri. "Our promise to the users and to the whole web community is that we are fair with everyone."
We are at a turning point where we as citizens, internet users and consumers have to choose to which extent we have a right to privacy, and to which extent we feel free to exercise it.
To be transparent, Qwant has released its source code so third-parties, like the French National Data Protection Body (CNIL), can certify its non-tracking policies and see it's not collecting data it's also shared their code with white-hat hackers for security reviews. This year, the company hope to open source its algorithms to ensure anyone can verify its privacy practices.
It is still up against Google, however. Qwant has 12 percent of its users using the search engine with smartphones. Mobile search traffic is dominated by Google who has 95 percent of the US smartphone market share. It doesn't help either that Quant isn't listed as a default search engine on Safari and Chrome browsers. But it's working on broadening the horizon for web users. "Whereas you only have a couple of search engines deciding what should be provided to billions of people, it is not so much a problem of neutrality," said Leandri, "it is a problem of democracy."