This article was originally published on December 5, 2018.
While the U.S. government is working to tighten its grip over citizens’ personal privacy, Europe’s new policy regulations are hoping to do the opposite.
Last month, the French National Assembly announced that they would no longer use Google. Instead, all French government devices will soon adopt the privacy-focused Qwant as their default search engine.
Worried that they were opening themselves to too much outside surveillance, the French government is making the switch in an effort to protect their privacy (and devices) from Google’s—and, inevitably the U.S. government’s—comprehensive data-retention policies.
Florian Bachelier, a member of France’s cybersecurity and digital sovereignty task-force, urged members of his party to take a stance. “We have to set the example,” Bachelier said. “Security and digital sovereignty are at stake here, which is anything but an issue only for geeks.”
What is Qwant?
Founded in 2013, Qwant is an encrypted search engine that functions the same way as Google but doesn’t keep logs. The independent search engine puts a heavy emphasis on user privacy, and in turn has grown exponentially.
— Qwant (@QwantCom) November 19, 2018
In fact, with an estimated average of 21 million monthly searches, Qwant has more than doubled its traffic in a single year. Keep in mind, though, that Google averages roughly 3.5 billion searches a day.
France and Silicon Valley: A troubled relationship
While Silicon Valley and the French government have been on shaky terms for a few years now, the decision to cut Google allegedly stems from Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks back in 2013—most notably, the fact that the NSA has been actively spying on foreign governments.
This isn’t the first time France and Silicon Valley have butted heads; last July, the European Commission successfully fined Google for 8.3 billion Euros for forcing companies to pre-install Google software in their Android apps. And the latest surveillance legislation, the CLOUD Act, which gives the U.S. carte blanche to collect and monitor American companies’ data abroad, has been met with equal measure criticism and scorn.
In a recent conference, France’s President Macron spoke about limiting Silicon Valley’s power overseas. “If we don’t regulate the internet,” Macron said, “the risk is to upset the fundamentals of democracy.”
Fearing France could soon be at the whim of American data retention laws, this push to drop Google in favor of a private search engine could have sweeping repercussions.
What information does Google collect?
As the world’s largest search engine, Google likely knows more about you than your closest friends. From easily searchable details like your metadata (including your maiden name, surname, family members, places of residence, etc.) to more detailed data like your browser history, contacts, ads you interacted with, social media updates, and more, Google keeps detailed records of everything you do online.
Google isn’t shy about the information they collect, either. According to their terms of service, they collect and analyze your metadata to show you more targeted ads and enhance your online experience. And in some cases, your calls may be recorded too.
If you’re curious to see what information Google is collecting, you can download your entire Google history by following this guide. You can also check to see how Google personalizes your ads and change your settings here.
Private search engines are on the rise—and not just in France
Google may still be the undisputed king of search engines, but competitors are finally starting to catch up. In the U.S., DuckDuckGo is arguably the most popular private search engine, with roughly 30 million searches a day. In Germany, Start Page is quickly becoming the country’s go-to search engine, and in Switzerland, SwissCows is more popular than ever.
Most of these private search engines promise more or less the same results as Google but without any of the added baggage. Location tracking and ads are often optional, and filtered results are usually a thing of the past.
Some of these search engines actually rely on user donations instead of third-party advertising, which means users won’t have to question when or why a company page ranks higher than others.
The importance of using a private search engine
When it comes to private browsing, taking advantage of a logless search engine is crucial. ExpressVPN has written about DuckDuckGo and StartPage in the past. We’ve even ranked some of the most popular web browsers in terms of privacy.
While a VPN is still your de-facto weapon to keep in your privacy arsenal, utilizing a private search engine is another way to bolster your anonymity and reduce your digital footprint.
If you haven’t already, consider giving one of these alternatives search engines a try: