no tracking, just search

Stacking the Odds for Alternatives

Posted: 02 February, 2021 · Tweet

In recent weeks we have seen more visibly the increasing reliance we all have on Big Tech and the power they have, amply illustrated by the recent and ongoing Australia vs Google spat.

The shutdown in January of Parler was a stark example of how emerging companies can be vulnerable to Big Tech. In a reaction, perhaps understandably to events in the US Capitol, Parler was taken down by AWS (part of Amazon), and removed from the app stores of both Apple and Google. AWS’ claim was that this was a response to the lack of content moderation by Parler, after repeated requests and a violation of their Terms of Service. Others have written at length about whether that’s right or wrong, and a legal case ensued.

More recently Element, a client through which you can use the federated Matrix messaging protocol, was withdrawn from the Google Play Store, with Google citing that it had removed it due to abusive content. That the client could supposedly be used to access abusive content is an interesting reason for removal in the first place; could you not also say that Google’s own Chrome browser can also be a used as a gateway to similar material? The messenger itself was quickly reinstated, but the gatekeeping which was undertaken by Google here is definitely something that we should collectively worry about.

If there is one thing that these cases prove it is surely that Big Tech has more power and ability to act in this area than governments. What does it mean for us when we engage in the act of searching for information?

What might happen when a search engine arises to rival Google? And where or how can it be hosted? Clearly it cannot use Google Cloud Platform. And neither can it use Microsoft Azure to be serious; after all Microsoft have their own search engine Bing. Should an aspiring search engine build itself on top of AWS?

Our answer is “No”:

  • AWS is expensive
  • Amazon has shown that it’s a company that cannot be trusted by the companies using their platforms

In any case, should you have faith in a software search service that draws heavily upon the technology stack of Big Tech? At Mojeek this is why we have spent time and money building up our own independent infrastructure. Building up a search index and/or service which relies on Amazon, Google, or Microsoft creates a dependency. And when in competition, a dependency is not sensible thing to have. This is also why, at Mojeek, we use a lot of tools that we are able to self host, side by side with the servers we use to crawl and index the Web, at the Custodian Data Center in Kent. Knowing where our work documents and conversations are stored gives us one less thing to worry about when it comes to the day-to-day operations of Mojeek.

At Mojeek we decided from the start to build our own index of the Web, instead of paying Microsoft or Google for the ability to use their search engine index, as so many do. A true alternative in search requires an independent index and ranking methods. Results that come from searching with Mojeek differ markedly from those by Google, Bing and their syndicates.

Whatever your views on Parler, Element and many other examples (e.g. EpicGames vs Apple lawsuit), the demonstrable power of a very few large technology companies should worry us all. The only other big search rivals to Google are Yandex in Russia and Baidu in China. And whilst the search engine Bing has a small but significant market share, it is after all the instrument of another giant, Microsoft. Indeed Microsoft itself was the last target of a big technology antitrust case; a case which it lost but then it managed to overturn on appeal. DuckDuckGo the best known alternative, let us not forget, is a syndication partner of Bing. Its privacy position is stronger but it is not a real search engine. It’s a search service which sends data to Bing and then gets back search results and the ads which it displays. This lack of an actual index means that DuckDuckGo is dependent upon Microsoft; not dissimilar to the dependency of Parler on Amazon.

There are only two true search engines which are independent of Big Tech, Gigablast and Mojeek. Gigablast is a one-man company in the United States which reports on barriers put up by Google and Microsoft. At Mojeek we are a growing UK company that is not funded by venture capitalists. We are the only real search engine offering privacy with no tracking. Indeed we were the first to do so, for any type of search engine/service.

Alternatives should seek to be as independent as possible from the large monolithic corporations which unfortunately dominate the Web. It is far from easy and in the case of search requires courage, investment and time to build your own infrastructure. We can assure you that there is no Amazon Web Services to come along and pull the plug on Mojeek; our servers are our own, for you to pass queries to and enjoy a search experience free from both tracking, venture capital, and Big Tech.

Update 03/02/2021, a previous version of this article stated that Gigablast was based in Silicon Valley; the article has been amended to reflect that they are actually based in the United States of America, specifically Albequerque, New Mexico

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