StartPage Search Engine Offers Anonymous Web Browsing

StartPage

StartPage isn’t exactly a new contender in the Internet search field—it launched all the way back in earlt 2005—but it is unique among Internet search engines in that it does not record information about its users. Back in 2006 the company began deleting all personal search details from its own log files, and in January 2009 the company stopped recording the IP addresses of its users. Where search engines like Bing are patting themselves on their backs for deleting users’ information after six months, StartPage hasn’t been recording that information at all.

Now, StartPage has added a new feature to its search service: the ability to search anonymously to found sites using its Ixquick proxy server, so users can connect to Web sites without passing any identifiable information along to them, including their IP address and information stored in cookies. Users can connect to a site directly, or click a “proxy” link below search results to connect anonymously.

“People are more concerned about online data retention policies than ever before,” said StartPage CEO Robert Beens. “We wanted to offer them a useful tool and this proxy is a logical extension of our services. A search engine is a starting point for people to visit other pages. Now our users can take the privacy they get with Startpage to the next step, and go privately to the sites they have found as well. This proxy completes the total search privacy picture.”

Well, it does and it doesn’t: while StartPage’s proxy service does prevent remote sites from setting browser cookies and recording a user’s IP address (instead, sites see the IP address of StartPage’s proxy service) plug-ins and other technologies can still get to users through the Ixquick proxy. For instance, Adobe’s Flash offers Local Shared Objects that can be used in manners similar to browser cookies; in fact, some online metrics firms, advertisers, and content companies use them as way to profile users and even as backups for browser cookies in the event a user is savvy enough to delete them to protect their privacy. Nonetheless, StartPage’s proxy service does offer users protections that simply aren’t available with any other search service: combined with appropriate client-side technologies (like advertising and flash blockers), users can take significant steps towards maintaining their online privacy.

Users may also find that sites visited via the Ixquick proxy don’t render the same as they do via a direct connection. There are many possible reasons for discrepancies, most of which have to do with how the site has been developed. The Ixquick proxy strips Javascript code from visited sites; it also won’t load frames hosted on another domain or enable users to fill out text-based forms. Users may also notice sites loading more slowly, since StartPage has to mediate all the requests.

StartPage says it has been profitable for the last five years, and earns its money through online advertising, just like any other search engine. However, the advertising is presented on the basis of Web site content compared to searches, not on the basis of users’ activity, search history, or compiled online profiles.

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