Analysis: privacy-focused startups see big tech issues as a boon


The new 3D printed Facebook rebranding logo Meta and the Facebook logo can be seen in this illustration taken on November 2, 2021. REUTERS / Dado Ruvic

  • Privacy Promising, Small Tech Firms Attract New Users
  • Startups avoid data collection, targeted advertising
  • As regulators target big tech, rivals see opportunity

LISBON, Nov. 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Leaks and controversies plaguing tech giants are pushing users towards privacy-focused startups trying to shake up the online market with a little help from regulators, according to business leaders and digital rights experts.

Last month, a Facebook whistleblower disclosed documents showing the social media company chose profit over user safety – the latest in a string of damaging revelations about big tech that smaller rivals say help them develop.

“Tech companies make our work easier,” said Andy Yen, Managing Director of Proton, a Switzerland-based company that sees itself as the world’s largest secure email provider, using end-to-end encryption and security features. sophisticated.

“This quest for higher and higher profits at the expense of users pushes people to seek alternative products and services with values ​​more aligned with theirs,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Founded in 2013, Proton has reached 50 million users worldwide this year.

It’s still a drop in the ocean compared to its larger competitors – Google’s Gmail has 1.5 billion active users – but Yen said it demonstrates a shift in user priorities.

Proton is one of a group of technology companies that have sprung up over the past decade that promise to protect user privacy – from removing targeted online ads to removing collection of personal data.

Some have added additional benefits. Germany’s Ecosia, a non-profit search engine, uses advertising revenue to plant trees, while its French counterpart Lilo funds social and environmental projects chosen by users.

Most are experiencing an increase in their user base.

The Signal encrypted messaging app has seen “unprecedented” growth this year, after Facebook made a controversial change to the privacy terms of its WhatsApp messaging platform. Read more

US web browser DuckDuckGo, which does not track users, recorded an average of nearly 100 million daily searches in October, up 38% year-over-year.

Its European counterpart Qwant, which the French government uses as its default search engine, also reported a 34% increase in searches last year, while rival Brave said its users nearly doubled to 36 million in the past year. during the 12 months ending in August.

A 2020 survey by data privacy firm Transcend found that 93% of Americans would switch to a company that prioritizes privacy if given the opportunity.

Yet privacy-focused services face an uphill battle against tech giants – a battle that cannot be won without the help of regulators, said Diego Naranjo, policy officer at the digital rights group. Europeans (EDRI).

“(The change) will not happen in the hands of the market,” he said by phone.

Big Tech critics say Apple and Google’s dominance in mobile phone operating systems, app stores and web browsers makes it difficult for competitors to emerge.


Sridhar Ramaswamy ran Google’s advertising division, but after being disappointed with the ad-laden search results, he co-founded the ad-free search engine Neeva.

He said that just showing up in front of potential clients is a challenge for startups.

“We feel good to be able to create a better product (than our rivals),” Ramaswamy said in an interview.

“(But) I’m a little terrified of making sure people have reasonable choices to be able to choose products like ours on mobile.”

Yen, Ramaswamy and others are optimistic about the potential impact of regulatory initiatives that have been launched around the world.

In 2018, the European Commission imposed a record fine of 4.24 billion euros ($ 5 billion) on Google for unfairly using Android to consolidate the dominance of its search engine and ordered it to ensure rules a level playing field for its rivals.

Still, urging EU lawmakers to act, DuckDuckGo, Ecosia, Qwant and Lilo said in October that they had yet to see positive results from the decision. Read more

The EU is also considering forcing phone makers to allow the installation of third-party software on their devices outside of official app stores, which Apple says would make phones the target of malware or cyber hacking. . Read more

And in August, South Korea banned major app store operators from forcing software developers to use their payment systems, preventing them from charging commissions on in-app purchases, with a similar law being enacted. discussion in the United States. Read more


Not all regulatory changes are good news for privacy-focused businesses, however.

Tech companies have come under increased pressure in some countries, including China and Russia, to store data locally and share it with authorities, which Yen called a “threat” to the Proton model.

“We may be doing less business in those countries, but it’s really a matter of principle,” said Yen, whose company has been banned by both Beijing and Moscow, adding that the data requests users were also increasingly common elsewhere.

Proton has recently come under fire after police said they provided a user’s IP address in a French investigation that led to the arrests of climate activists.

The company said it was forced to comply with the request of Swiss authorities.

While some apps are free, others require users to pay a subscription fee, which has raised concerns that privacy will become a luxury only for people who can afford to pay for it.

Neeva and ProtonMail charge users around $ 5 per month, although the Swiss company also offers free limited-use accounts.

But Ramaswamy dismissed the idea that free online products are more egalitarian, saying they tend to serve the interests of big business and advertisers more than users.

“Important online services like search and even social media should work like the water that comes out of our tap. They should be inexpensive and worry-free,” he said.

“This is the decade when people will realize that they are doing enough things online that paying for some of these services, in return for the peace of mind that comes with it, is a good thing to do.”

Report by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit

Source link

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published.