StartPage.com has always presented itself as a data-saving alternative. Since the sale of the majority of shares to a data broker last autumn, the provider has been vehemently criticized. We are of course interested in the background of the takeover, but not only.
Of course we have addressed this issue in our detailed interview. We give the operators the opportunity to comment on the incident themselves. With the help of our community we have collected the questions in advance. At this point, I would like to thank Jörg Bauer, the press spokesman of Startpage, who dealt with the countless questions. Many thanks also to Sunny, who organized numerous questions and the translation into English. You can find the german interview here.
About the history of Startpage.com
Jörg Bauer: Ixquick was founded back in 1998 in the USA. The meta search engine used various search idices. In 2006, it was completely anonymized and Startpage was founded to guarantee the best search results in addition to the highest possible security. We achieved this goal by using the search feed from Google.
The two privacy search engines now existed in parallel, but our fans mostly preferred Startpage. And we were committed to further increasing efficiency and quality. So we put our focus on Startpage and used the freed up resources to make Startpage the most secure search engine.
Tarnkappe.info: To what extent do you still work according to the principles from the founding period of 1998 ?
Jörg Bauer: The actual founding period, when data protection became our main topic, was in 2006. Back then our CEO Robert Beens noticed that the server capacities had to be constantly expanded. This was due to the mountains of data that had accumulated until then. And since the collection of data was never planned nor was it a business model at any time, Robert decided to delete all personal data and not to collect any more in the future. But most importantly, he realized what data is generated by web searches and how explosive they are. From then on, he committed himself, and with him the entire company, to data protection.
This has remained absolutely unchanged to this day. Since 2006 Startpage has become the safest search engine in the world, as confirmed by Stiftung Warentest last year.
The solution: don’t save data or delete them immediately!
What is generally asked, your biggest motivation to run Startpage?
Startpage.com: We see an increasing threat to online privacy in general and the privacy of search engine users in particular. Online advertising, search engines and government agencies are using every opportunity to get their hands on private information.
More and more consumers are beginning to become aware of this threat. Political pressure (especially in the EU) could push the major search engines to improve their privacy policies towards real privacy. For us, however, there is only one solution: not to store data and/or to delete it immediately! Without existing data, there can be no loophole that could be abused.
Startpage will continue to follow its mission with the highest level of conviction: the best search results with the best possible protection of your privacy!
What do you think about Firefox? If you want to surf with this browser in a data-saving way, you have to do a lot of work in advance. We have already described in detail how to do this. With so much data being transferred, are the people from the Mozilla Foundation really the good guys, or do they rather pretend to be?
Startpage.com: I ask for your understanding that we refrain from judging other projects. We concentrate on remaining the best in our field and on protecting our users from data access. Since we are also a earch engine, i.e. since we offer an anonymous view, it is possible to surf anonymously with every browser.
However, I would say that Firefox is generally one of the better browsers to use from a privacy perspective. For real privacy, however, the default settings are very important, as research has shown that the vast majority of internet users do NOT change their default settings.
Talking about NGOs, are there projects that you support as a data protector, in financial or ideological terms ?
Jörg Bauer: Yes, they do exist. Over the last few years we have worked with many organizations. In DACH we currently financially support noyb from Max Schrems, digitalcourage in Bielefeld and the Austrian NGO epicenter.works.
The site is very minimalistically designed. Are there any minimum requirements for visitors to the site, what do they look like? (Browser, OS etc.)
Startpage.com: The sole purpose of a search engine is for users to search and find. In our case, the desire for privacy is added. We want to shine and remain the safest search engine in the future. That is why the minimum requirements are also low. Startpage can be used with any browser and all devices. However, browser applications should always be up to date. This is also due to security.
Whenever users need help, our excellent support is at their disposal. There is an extensive support center under this link and help is always available promptly at firstname.lastname@example.org. We are always in close contact with our users.
We usually direct European search queries to European servers…
Will search queries from Europe continue to be handled exclusively via European servers in order to ensure data protection?
Startpage.com: Startpage has server clusters in the Netherlands and the USA. Startpage usually routes European search queries to European servers, American search queries to US servers and search queries from other countries to the nearest server locations. If an excessive number of search queries are performed in a certain period of time, Startpage can temporarily process some American search queries to European servers and vice versa.
Our hosting provider, which is handling this traffic congestion in Europe, Rout-IT, has an excellent technical reputation and is available almost all the time.
This handling of the resulting traffic overload has no impact on privacy and should have little or no effect on the response time or performance of Startpage.
In addition, users can set Europe as the exclusive server location in the settings.
Sale of the company shares
Why did you sell Startpage.com to „Privacy One Group Ltd“? Were there not enough other interested parties?
Robert Beens: To be honest, compared to our competitors we have focused more on data protection aspects than on marketing and PR. Maybe because I value privacy (including my own) so much. But while our true mission is to make an impression in the world with our unique privacy search engine, an important goal should also be to gain a foothold in the market. Other privacy-focused search engines have brought in investors such as VCs and media companies over the years, creating opportunities to raise awareness of privacy and data protection. That’s why we considered the latest investment in our company.
System1 is a marketing company for end users with a lot of experience with search engines. At the same time the company understands that the world is changing and that privacy friendly alternatives like Startpage are urgently needed. The people behind System1 see how important data protection is for the future and have founded a new, independent company called Privacy One Group to build new data protection and security initiatives.
Their investment in Startpage will provide additional funds and resources, particularly expertise and connections in marketing, and thus create greater appeal for our product – especially in the US.
Privacy One Group’s investment does not change our mission to provide more and more people with real privacy when searching the web. On the contrary – it will help us to further promote privacy. To ensure that this remains the case, this investment includes contracts and agreements that ensure that the full control of all privacy related decisions remains with Startpage and its management team.
„Things take time.“
Why was the sale to the data broker not openly communicated from the beginning? The fact that the new owner only became known later did not exactly polish up your image.
Startpage.com: The relationship between Privacy One Group and Startpage began in January 2019 and after a brief transition planning and alignment, the teams were pleased to announce their joint mission to provide the world with more privacy options.
We needed transition planning and alignment. Things take time. We didn’t want to communicate half-measures and at no time did we intend to hide the investment. On the contrary.
How much do your sponsors influence you when it comes to data protection? In which context does the buyer interfere?
For further background information from System1 regarding the reason for their investment, please see the following statement by Michael Blend (Chairman of System1) and Ian Weingarten (Managing Director of System1):
Startpage.com: Startpage is owned by Surfboard Holding B.V. – both companies are Dutch companies and are still managed by the Startpage founders. Apart from the stake that System1 has acquired through the Privacy One Group (its wholly owned subsidiary), the original founders remain shareholders of Surfboard Holding B.V. System1 has a majority stake in Startpage, although as mentioned above, the Startpage founders have control over Startpage’s privacy components.
„Data protection is by its very nature a matter of trust.“
What do you think about the dwindling trust of the internet community in Startpage ? How can you regain this trust?
Startpage.com: Data protection is by its very nature a matter of trust. But there are some compelling reasons to trust us more than other companies that advertise with „privacy on the Internet“. We have decided to undergo a long-term certification process. Other companies boast of „respecting privacy“ without independent review. We have taken this effort upon ourselves and have had ourselves audited by an independent certification authority.
We were audited by EuroPriSe, an independent auditing and certification body. EuroPriSe carried out this thorough audit on privacy and practical data processing in 2007/2008. Since then we have been audited regularly. As a company we have been DSGVO-compliant since 25 May 2018. However, at the moment there is no renowned external independent organisation from which we can be certified. However, as soon as such a certification body has been established, we will endeavour to obtain DSGVO certification.
The second reason to trust us is that we were advocating privacy on the web even before it was „cool“. We were the first search engine to delete user data and really focus on user privacy. We were the first and we are still the best. This was also the result of an evaluation by Stiftung Warentest.
As you may know, privacytools.io had removed us from their list of trusted search engines at short notice – because they thought we would not communicate openly. Unfortunately, a dissatisfied former Startpage employee jumped on it and caused massive discontent.
After privacytools.io convinced itself that absolutely nothing has changed in terms of privacy on Startpage, we were immediately added to the list as a sign of trust.
Our reputation is very important to us.
In other words: How do you rate your reputation at the moment? What do you say to the conscientious objectors who currently reject your service?
Startpage.com: Our reputation is very important to us. How do we appeal to people? Do they place their trust in us? To this extent, we engage in a constant open dialogue, as in this interview. Constantly rising user numbers, especially in Germany, confirm that we continue to enjoy this trust.
We are always ready to talk and welcome any open dialogue with possible critics. Startpage has proven its consistency when it comes to data protection for 14 years. We are the only search engine that has been examined several times by third parties. We have never had to complain about even the slightest loss of data, because we do not collect or store any data.
There is another reason to believe in us: privacy is simply our passion. Privacy is our focus. Without privacy we would lose 99% of our users and would be pushed out of the race by the „big boys“. Conclusion: If anyone is careful with privacy, it is us.
This has not changed at all. And last but not least, the DSGVO is keeping an eye on this.
Tarnkappe.info: What is the difference whether I entrust my data to Google or System1?
Jörg Bauer: This question does not arise, since no data is drained from Startpage. Your personal data never leaves Startpage and is not passed on to Google OR S1. This is clearly shown in our data flow chart. Here we explain our relationship to Privacy One/System1. And here what we collect.
Which data are saved or logged from the users after the purchase?
Is the collection or analysis of the data different from before the sale?
Startpage.com: No! We do not store or evaluate any data.
Tarnkappe.info: Are there plans to expand the Startpage infrastructure ?
Jörg Bauer: Absolutely. On the one hand, we always keep our finger on the pulse when it comes to security and encryption technologies. But also our plans to expand functionality are extensive. This year there will certainly be a few surprises from our side.
Are there other projects planned in the future concerning data protection ?
Startpage.com: I can again answer that with yes. I’ll only reveal so much: News will be available later this year.
Startpage.com: Yes, for Startpage this step is planned for the first quarter of 2021.
Startpage can of course already be used in combination with TOR. However, it is better to use our Privcay function „Anonymous view„. This is really Startpage’s hidden jewel. It’s basically a TOR browser and a VPN in one, and the best thing about it is that it’s free and available with every search:
European solutions are now in demand
Tarnkappe.info: Google is changing the look of the web massively. What do you think the WWW will look like in five or ten years? And what will you do then professionally? Is it even possible to prevent the quasi-monopolist from doing so?
Jörg Bauer: As mentioned at the beginning, I do not want to talk about the practices of other companies. And it is difficult to make a forecast over such a long period (5 years are decades in the web).
It would be important for Europe to focus on European projects and provide the necessary support. An own operating system, own social media portals and of course an own search index would be desirable. To achieve this, the Union must significantly strengthen the competitiveness of European companies. This includes tax justice and appropriate funding for research and development, while at the same time taking care of preventing the migration of European innovations.
No one can predict what will happen tomorrow. However, I do see the future in data protection in Europe. The DSGVO makes Europe the safest data location in the world and more and more companies are realising this. I always allow myself to compare it with Fort Knox.
It is now important to use this advantage and to promote confidence in Europe as a business location. Startpage is a good example of this. Our hits in Europe have been rising for years, globally. Especially in Germany we are getting more and more popular because people can rely on us, because no other search engine has gone through so many tests and left the competition behind in every case.
Dear Jörg Bauer and Robert Beens: Thank you very much for all the time you have invested into this conversation.