User privacy moves to the mainstream with new browser and search releases

User privacy
Via Unsplash

User privacy is the hottest trend in the browser and search sectors right now. Apple is set to launch Apple Private Relay in beta, letting users stop websites identifying them. Firefox, fourth in the browser market behind Microsoft’s Edge, is pushing its own private relay and a privacy-focused VPN. And $40-million startup Neeva, an ad-free, subscriber-supported search engine, has started recruiting customers.

  • Privacy is becoming increasingly important, not least after the pandemic forced people to work and shop online. Broader concerns about data privacy have caught the attention of  regulators and the increased interest has led big and small tech alke to pay closer attention to how they handle user privacy.
  • Last year, the CEOs of Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Twitter had to sit in front of US legislators and face criticism on how they exploit and even abuse user data. While Facebook and Amazon embarked on customer PR projects to convince customers that their platforms are safe, Apple and Google introduced new privacy controls.
  • Some digital businesses see increased privacy concerns as an opportunity. “Companies should realise data privacy is about building brand trust and being a better corporate citizen,” writes Matt Holleran in Forbes. “Companies that do this well can gain a significant competitive advantage in the marketplace.”
Private browsing 
  • This month, Apple is launching Apple Private Relay in beta. The feature lets users browse the web without revealing their real IP address, making it more difficult for sites to track them. While it won’t stop all tracking, the feature will be available to all iCloud+ customers; for just $0.99 iPhone, Ipad and Mac users on Safari will get an easy-to-use VPN stand in.
  • Firefox is already pushing its own private relay product to its 200 million monthly active users. Launched last year, the Firefox Relay browser add-on generates unique email aliases when filling in online forms, hiding users’ real email addresses from advertisers and spammers. Firefox developer Mozilla has also launched a VPN that for $9.99 a month will encrypt all internet traffic and hide IP address and location.
  • While Google is still struggling to get broad acceptance for its long-term third-party cookie replacement, it is continuing to add privacy enhancements to its Chrome browser. Chrome version 92 introduced fixes for known security issues as well as new features that limit website access to hardware features such as the microphone, location and camera.
Safe search

Neeva, a start-up founded by former Google staffers, offers users an ad-free privacy-focused search alternative. Unlike Google or Bing, Neeva is not free. But for $4.95  a month users get a search that automatically blocks third-party trackers and promises to be “100 percent focused on providing the best search experience for the user.”

However, privacy is not a straightforward sell; a 2019 study by the Pew Research Center found less than 15% of Americans were actively taking steps to preserve their online privacy. Neeva founder Sridhar Ramaswamy believes the search can get 200 million subscribers, but he is realistic about how long that will take.

With the Neeva app downloaded just 2,000 times a few weeks after coming out of beta. “The process of building up to the kind of subscriber base that Netflix has is a 10-plus year project,” Ramaswamy said.

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