Delisting Startpage.com

Dear PrivacyTools community,

On the 15th of October, it was brought to our attention that Startpage.com was reportedly (partially?) taken over by a company called the Privacy One Group, which is in turn owned by a company called System1. We found this quite remarkable as the two companies seem to have conflicting business models. Startpage has been known for basing their advertisements on what their users enter in their search bar. System1 on the other hand, is a pay-per-click advertising company that "has developed a pre-targeting platform that identifies and unlocks consumer intent across channels including social, native, email, search, market research and lead generation rather than relying solely on what consumers enter into search boxes."


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://blog.privacytools.io/delisting-startpage/
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Just saw a new video about the Startpage de-listing discussion here at PTIO. The host goes through all the evidence presented and comes to the same conclusion as PTIO – he wants more info ~ esp. about the Privacy One Group Ltd. ~ before he’ll be comfortable recommending it again.

You can see it on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P398fuu9oz0&feature=youtu.be

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EDIT: Here’s another article about the de-listing from RestorePrivacy, with some additional background on the System1 purchase/investment.

It’s interesting to note that the journalist, Sven, asked Startpage/System1 the same questions and also did not receive a reply.

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EDIT: One more to post by Martin Brinkman of ghacks.net. He references the PTIO de-listing.

EDIT: I’m trying to catch up with updates as Startpage answers more questions. (Glad to see this!)

Startpage has confirmed that Privacy One Group is registered in Delaware. They’ve also released other details that you can see here.

Good to see more information coming to light.

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Here’s a Mac Observer press article about the de-listing: https://www.macobserver.com/link/privacytools-startpage-system1/

EDIT: This is so sad. I don’t get why Startpage won’t answer the questions and apply for relisting.

EDIT Update: Startpage has posted some additional information. Good to see more information coming to light.

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And here’s yet another article that adds a humorist twist: http://techrights.org/2019/11/13/startpage-delisted/

Sometimes you’ve got to laugh to keep from crying.

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@LizMcIntyre

https://support.startpage.com/index.php?/Knowledgebase/Article/View/1275/0/what-is-startpages-relationship-with-privacy-onesystem1-and-what-does-this-mean-for-my-privacy-protections

  • Who owns Startpage, and what are the ownership percentages?

Startpage BV is owned by Surfboard Holding B.V.—both are Dutch companies and continue to be managed by Startpage’s founders. Besides the stake that System1 acquired through the Privacy One Group (its wholly owned subsidiary), the original founders remain shareholders in Surfboard Holding B.V. System1 has majority ownership of Startpage, although as noted above, the Startpage founders have control over the privacy components of Startpage.

  • Who are System1 and the Privacy One Group, and how are they connected?

System1 invested in Surfboard Holding through the Privacy One Group, its wholly owned subsidiary with Delaware incorporation, for legal and fiscal reasons. Privacy One Group is incorporated and listed in Delaware. The register can be found at: https://icis.corp.delaware.gov/Ecorp/EntitySearch/NameSearch.aspx

System1 is a consumer internet company with a portfolio of websites and significant search engine experience. The company recognizes the importance of privacy and security, and foresees developing and providing additional products to address this important trend. The Privacy One Group was originally intended to lead European investments in new privacy and security products. Over the past months System1’s privacy intentions have expanded and thus we understand their future investments may take place across various units within the System1 group.

Further background information from System1 on the reason for their investment can be found in the following statement from Michael Blend (Chairman, System1) and Ian Weingarten (CEO, System1):

“We are 100% committed to maintaining and strengthening the privacy of Startpage. We have huge respect for Startpage, its founders, and the privacy of the millions of Startpage users. Legally, the Startpage founders have control over all privacy aspects related to Startpage. In addition, Startpage consults with third parties to review the technical approaches to all privacy elements, to ensure thoughtful and rigorous privacy protections. Beyond these protections, System1 is committed to ensuring Startpage remains the most private search engine. We made our investment because we believe Startpage serves a critical role in maintaining consumer privacy, and we hope our resources can help Startpage bring privacy to millions of new users around the world.”

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This is a positive step forward, but some questions are still not answered fully and transparently. I don’t understand why Startpage/System1 won’t directly answer the following questions (I’ve added notes on important parts still NOT addressed):

  • The % of Startpage and Surfboard Holding B.V. (the Startpage holding company) System1 acquired in December 2018. [Still not addressed. This is important for understanding who actually has power over decisions long-term (a CEO may be short term) and whether the company is directly subject to U.S. laws via legislation like The CLOUD Act.]

  • The current % ownership by System1 at the time of the audit (and any other major owners). [Still not addressed. What % is owned by System1, Privacy One Group and any significant shareholder today? Important for transparency and verifying trust in communications by the company.]

  • Information about Privacy One Group Ltd. Where is it registered and in what city, state and country does it operate? (We have not been able to verify registration information.) [We now have Delaware verification, but where does it actually operate? Was it just for investment? If so, then how is it a separate operating unit? Has System1 been involved in day-to-day company business, and has it touched any part of the Startpage data process?]

  • A diagram of data flows, including flows to outside organizations, like System1, Privacy One etc. [EDIT: We have received a new diagram that is helpful in understanding the data flows. It appears (see fine print) that some data is processed by System1, but “fuzzed” or “anonymized.”]

EDIT: I now see some fine print next to the diagram showing that some “fuzzed” data is sent by Startpage to System1 for processing, then presumably returned. Looks like maybe selecting EU only search engines might be a solution to avoiding System1. Not sure.

ALSO:

Startpage/System1 states the following in its newly posted information:

System1 is a sizeable consumer internet and applications company, owning sites like HowStuffWorks, Activebeat, MapQuest, among others, and does purchase advertising for its websites. System1’s businesses generally do not involve building or maintaining user profiles and little user information is processed or stored within System1.

This paragraph reveals that at least some user information is processed or stored with System1, raising more questions.

For example, System1 has a “privacy” browser called Hushbrowser in the Google Play Store that doesn’t seem very private at all. The Hushbrowser website connects to a privacy policy associated with its Infospace brand that is horrendous.

Here are some excerpts from that “privacy” policy that discusses how System1 may not collect user personal personal info, but somehow can get that information and associate it with a user:

Information We Collect Through Automatic Data Collection Technologies

As you use our services, we may use automatic data collection technologies to collect certain information about your equipment, browsing actions, and patterns, including:

  • Details of your use of our services, including traffic data, location data, logs, and other communication data and the resources that you use on our services.
  • Information about your computer and internet connection, including your IP address, operating system, and browser type.

We also may use these technologies to collect information about your online activities over time and across third-party websites or other online services (behavioral tracking).

The information we collect automatically is statistical data and does not include personal information, but we may maintain it or associate it with personal information we collect in other ways or receive from third parties. It helps us to improve our services and to deliver a better and more personalized service. [emphasis added]

So System1 does not collect personal information but “may associate it with personal information [they] collect in other ways or receive from third parties”? I’d like to know more about that and if that has any implications for Startpage users.

We should still want to know why it has taken so long and multiple requests to get many of these answers.

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If we know that System1 has a “majority ownership of Startpage” — a legal definition meaning more than 50% — do the specific percentages still matter?

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Yes. Very much so. Let’s say System1 bought 99% of the Startpage holding company itself or through Privacy One Group. That could have implications for who really calls the shots long-term. What if it owns just 51% and another major company, like Google, Yahoo, or Facebook own a percentage? I think we can agree that having ownership by any of those companies – even just 10 or 20 % each – would add additional concerns.

I believe the podcaster of @ SwitchedToLinux nailed this in his show about the Startpage ownership change when he said pay-per-click and other big companies shouldn’t hide behind privacy assertions as a reason to keep important ownership information hidden. He noted how important this information is for consumer understanding and trust.

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Thank you, Liz. You raise some of the best points I have heard about this statement by them. It’s amazing how they somehow manages to leave us with more questions, not fewer.

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Hi Liz, Dan and I received a letter from Startpage earlier with some information I’ll have to discuss with the team. They did share:

I can add that the Privacy One Group and the founders together, hold 100% of Surfboard Holding B.V.

I haven’t had time to review everything entirely, but I’ll update you all soon.

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Hi @jonah @danarel. I don’t understand why Startpage/System1 won’t just tell everyone how much System1 bought of Startpage in December 2018 and how much it owns today. It’s a really simple question.

Why the continuing evasiveness? Here are the only logical explanations (theories) I’ve heard:

  • Maybe Startpage/System1 is concerned that buying most or all of Startpage would alert consumers it is subject it to U.S. laws?

  • Maybe they’d no longer be able to claim they are “Dutch” ?

  • Maybe they’re concerned that it will show that System1 has overwhelming control over the company?

Note that by comparison, Qwant publishes the percent of ownership of any major shareholder – in its press kit. (I’m not recommending Qwant, just showing how this is not seen as an outlandish information request – and even seen as important public information.)

NOTE: I really hope Startpage steps up and answers all questions. I LOVED the search and used it all the time. I’m also hoping I am not subject to retaliation for standing firm on my convictions.

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I am seeking a wealth of Google search results while maintaining privacy. I often look at privacytools.io, but StartPage was on the site before, but it’s gone now. Is Startpage dangerous? And if so, please tell us about a search engine that specializes in privacy while having great Google search results! !

See Delisting Startpage.com

Hi @jonah . Thanks for sharing that letter. Could you email me the letter you sent to Startpage so I can better respond?

It’s been a LONG road to getting Startpage answers, but we’ve gotten many more of them.

I’ve tried to go back to some of the original posts here and in the privacy threads to add updates to show new information that Startpage has shared. We still don’t have everything we’d like to know, like how much System1 owns of Startpage, but we have a much clearer picture.

It’s up to the PTIO community to decide if it will accept partial answers from any company it questions – if the community decides it’s important to move forward with standard questions to ask ALL privacy companies.

Whatever the decision, I believe it is critically important to have some kind of checklist/criteria and a process for determining which services should be recommended and which ones should be de-listed. This is the only way PTIO will not only be fair, but be perceived as fair, in its recommendations. I believe for the sake of transparency, all the criteria/checklists/questions and answers (or non answers) should be documented for the public so consumers can make their own educated decisions.

I also believe services should be revisited at least annually or when there are changes detected in a service, like a VC investment or change in privacy policy.

:turkey: Have a wonderful Thanksgiving to my U.S. friends! :turkey:

I really disagree with this decision. When it comes to a publicly-hosted search engine, there’s always an element of trust. I trust Startpage because it has been audited and has been an active contributor to internet security and user privacy for a long time.

Unlike many other companies which have gone through similar changes, Startpage has been very transparent in addressing user questions, even answering things which most companies wouldn’t (like questions about their amounts of ownership).

What a lot of people who have commented on this don’t seem to understand is that this is an investment, not an acquisition. That means that most likely it’s Startpage the company which gets the money, not the current owners. The money goes into the company to grow the company, and the current owners have their ownership diluted to make that happen. So it’s not like the owners are selling their stock and cashing out for personal gain. They are most likely diluting and having less ownership in exchange for the whole company to benefit from the investment.

Also, a lot of people also don’t seem to understand that just because someone is the majority owner in a company that does not mean they have control. It depends on the contracts and company charter and bylaws. The CEO said that under the investment contract he retains control of all privacy-related decisions. So do you trust him? If not, then you never should have used Startpage, even before this news. If you do, then why stop?

This may not convince anybody to change their mind, but it’s a shame that this company which has done such good work for users is being dragged through the mud.

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I switched to DDG and I am happy so far.

The one thing that bothers me about DDG is that it doesn’t have image-search.
I used DDG for a while when trying to degoogle and was amazed about how much I apparently used that. StartPage does have an Image-Search,

So you mean reverse image search where you can search by uploading an image?