British web users now have a way to search for U.K.-specific content in privacy. Oscobo, a London-based search engine, launched last week. Its founders, who both ditched long term corporate careers, told Red Herring they became increasingly despondent with the way search engines were mining users’ data – and sought to create an alternative.
Fred Cornell worked at Yahoo for over a decade in London and Switzerland. “I learnt a lot, but I also saw firsthand what the industry does with personal information, and how it is being mined and sold and so on,” he says.
“They all seek to harvest your data, and I became uncomfortable with the whole scene, and especially since 2008/09 when the ad exchanges kicked in, I decided I wanted to do something about it and conceal privacy.”
Robert Perin, a longtime BlackBerry employee who knew Cornell since 2000, had grown similarly outraged at the state of online privacy. In 2013, backed by private funding, the pair began working on Oscobo, a Latin/Swedish name meaning, roughly, ‘not to probe’. On Wednesday, Oscobo’s site began receiving search queries. Cornell and Perin hope it can capitalize on a growing climate of privacy awareness in Europe and the US, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations and the E.U.’s battle against Silicon Valley’s biggest players.
Across the Atlantic, DuckDuckGo, a similar search engine, has already flourished since its 2008 inception. This year it received over 3.25 billion search queries, which is a 74% increase on last year. Last month it topped 12 million daily queries for the first time.
Other engines have appeared since, such as Ixquick, Blippex and Startpage, while in Europe Swiss firm Hublee has been well-funded since its launch last year.
For now, though, Oscobo’s founders are happy to focus on the U.K. “Instead of going global we thought we’d hold on and launch here,” says Cornell. “London is probably the number one place to found a startup, and internet users in the UK believe in their rights and data privacy.” He adds that, if successful, the firm will seek to expand onto the continent later this year.
On the growing number of privacy search engines out there, Perin adds: “It’s not a Pepsi or Coke argument – there is room out there!”
For now privacy search engines only comprise a tiny part of the overall market. But it is changing rapidly, from 0.1% in 2014 to a projected 0.5% today. “We’re still talking about half a billion dollars in the next year or so,” says Cornell.
Above all, he adds, the social contract between provider and user that was present when he began in tech, has changed dramatically. “Back then it was very open,” he says. “It isn’t correct now, that when I leave someone’s website they can see what I’ve been looking at.
“Also, surveys done in North America and Europe tell us that people are increasingly concerned with their online privacy,” adds Cornell. “They are concerned about where data is stored, but we also see that people are concerned about what it is being used for. Who’s going to use that? Is it for targeted ads? Will I pay more for something? People really do not know what all this data is being used for.
“We think this is the year that people will really stand up and ask what their data is being used for.”