Verizon offers no-tracking search engine, promises to protect your privacy
Verizon today launched a new search engine, claiming that its “OneSearch” service will offer users more privacy than the standard options in a market dominated by Google.
Verizon’s actual search results are provided by Microsoft’s Bing, but Verizon added several privacy-focused features—while retaining the ability to serve contextual ads.
“To allow for a free search engine experience, OneSearch is an ad-supported platform,” Verizon said in its announcement. “Ads will be contextual, based on factors like search keywords, not cookies or browsing history.”
Under the search bar is a toggle to turn on “Advanced Privacy Mode.” This “encrypts your search terms and search URL, masking your search intent from third parties,” Verizon says. The resulting “encrypted search results link will expire within an hour, adding another layer of privacy in the event that multiple people use the same device or if a search results link is shared with a friend,” Verizon says.
Verizon uses your IP address to determine your “general location,” helping it deliver location-specific search results. Verizon said that “We only ever infer location data up to the city level of specificity for search localization purposes.”
For example, if you search for “flower shops” we may display an advertisement/search result for one or more flower shops. We will sometimes provide your Search Query and/or your general location to advertising partners in order to provide you with advertisements/search results but the information they receive is never identifiable to you as we do not provide your IP Address to any advertising partners.
Verizon’s failed media ventures
OneSearch is delivered by Verizon Media, the division based largely on Verizon acquisitions Yahoo and AOL. Verizon Media has failed to compete effectively against Google and Facebook in the online advertising market, and it has suffered multiple rounds of layoffs. Verizon has pursued various media ventures outside its core telecom business, such as the Go90 video service that was unpopular and shut down after less than three years.
While OneSearch is available on the Web today, Verizon said that mobile apps for Android and iOS will come later this month. Verizon said that OneSearch is initially available in North America and will be available in countries outside North America “soon.”
How OneSearch works
The OneSearch privacy notice offers a breakdown of what happens after you enter a search query. The process involves Verizon, Microsoft’s Bing, and other unnamed companies.
Here’s a summary of how it works:
Your IP address, search query, and user agent are transferred over HTTPS to Verizon servers. The user agent generally includes data about the browser, operating system, and type of device and app you’re using to make the search.
Verizon derives your city-level location data from your IP address and then sends your IP address, user agent, search query, and location data to Microsoft’s Bing “so that the actual search request can be made through their search engine.”
Bing provides the search results to Verizon, and then Verizon’s automated process “work[s] with our Search Partners to provide you with contextual advertisements and/or search results.” Verizon describes the “search partners” vaguely as “certain companies providing search result optimization input” and says they “are not provided with your personal data.”
Verizon will store your IP address for four days “for the purpose of network traffic protection” and then permanently delete the IP address.
Bing will continue to store the IP address, search query, and user agent, also for network traffic protection. After four days, Bing “obfuscates the IP address.”
Additionally, Verizon says it stores your IP address, search query, and user agent “in different servers in such a way that they are not able to be connected.”
Do you trust Verizon?
Verizon is an unlikely candidate to launch a product whose entire pitch is based on privacy. In March 2016, Verizon agreed to pay a $1.35 million fine and give users more control over “supercookies” that were used to identify customers to deliver targeted ads. Verizon’s use of the supercookies without properly notifying users violated a net neutrality rule that required Internet providers to disclose accurate information about network management practices to consumers, the Federal Communications Commission said at the time.
Verizon was also one of several major carriers that sold its mobile customers’ location information to third-party data brokers, but Verizon promised to stop the practice in 2018 after a security problem leaked the real-time location of US cell phone users. T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T apparently continued the sales longer than Verizon did.
All four carriers were hit with class-action lawsuits accusing them of violating federal law by selling their customers’ real-time location data to third parties. But a US District Court judge in Maryland granted the carriers’ motions to compel arbitration, forcing customers to arbitrate the disputes outside of court.
Despite Verizon’s apparent devotion to privacy with OneSearch, the company has opposed government regulations that would force carriers to protect customer privacy. For example, Verizon opposed Obama-era FCC rules that would have required ISPs to obtain customers’ opt-in consent before using, sharing, or selling Web-browsing history, arguing that “personalized advertising benefits consumers.” That opt-in rule was blocked by the Republican-controlled Congress and President Trump before it took effect.
If you’re looking for a privacy-focused search engine, Verizon isn’t your only option. DuckDuckGo provides a search engine and promises not to collect or share any of its users’ personal information. There’s also Startpage, which uses Google search results but removes trackers and logs in order to make search queries private.