Apple considered replacing Google with DuckDuckGo as default search engine on Safari

Company rejected the idea citing concerns about the browser's reliance on Microsoft's Bing for search information

The US Justice Department alleges that Google has paid billions of dollars to Apple to be the default search engine on web browsers and smartphones. Reuters
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Apple held talks with DuckDuckGo to replace Alphabet's Google as the default search engine for the private mode on Apple’s Safari browser, but ultimately rejected the idea.

The details of those talks – and Apple’s discussions about buying Microsoft's Bing search engine in 2018 and 2020 – were revealed late Wednesday in transcripts unsealed by the judge overseeing the US government’s antitrust trial against Google.

US District Judge Amit Mehta ruled on Wednesday that he would unseal the testimony of DuckDuckGo chief executive Gabriel Weinberg and Apple executive John Giannandrea, both of whom testified in the Washington trial in closed sessions.

Mr Weinberg testified that DuckDuckGo had about 20 meetings and phone calls with Apple executives, including the head of Safari, in 2018 and 2019 about becoming the default search engine for private browsing mode.

In private mode, Safari doesn’t track websites that a user visits or keep a history of what a person has accessed.

“We were talking about it, I thought they would launch it,” Mr Weinberg said, noting that Apple had integrated several of DuckDuckGo’s other privacy technologies into Safari.

“Multiple times we’ve gotten integrations all the way through the finish line. Really, almost everything we’ve pitched except for search.”

But Mr Giannandrea, who joined Apple as the head of search in 2018, said that to his knowledge Apple hadn’t considered switching to DuckDuckGo.

In a February 2019 email to other Apple executives, Mr Giannandrea said it was “probably a bad idea” to switch to DuckDuckGo for private browsing in Safari.

“The motivating factor for setting DuckDuckGo as the default for private browsing was an assumption that it would be more private", Mr Giannandrea testified.

Because DuckDuckGo relies on Bing for its search information, it also likely provides Microsoft some user information, he said, which led him to believe that DuckDuckGo’s “marketing about privacy is somewhat incongruent with the details”.

If Apple seriously wanted to switch to DuckDuckGo, “I would probably insist on doing a lot more due diligence with DuckDuckGo", he said.

DuckDuckGo declined to comment on the judge’s ruling. Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Justice Department alleges that Google has paid billions of dollars to Apple and others to be the default search engine on web browsers and smartphones.

Those deals kept other search engines, like Microsoft’s Bing and DuckDuckGo, from building up users and becoming rivals to Google, federal and state antitrust enforcers said.

In contrast to his comments about DuckDuckGo, Mr Giannandrea said that Apple chief executive Tim Cook asked him to talk with Microsoft executives in 2018 about possibly using Bing’s search engine for Safari.

The companies had a series of meetings in the autumn of 2018 and again around Christmas in 2020 to discuss a joint venture or possible sale of Bing to Apple, he said.

As part of the talks, Apple studied Bing’s search results compared with Google. The May 2021 study found that Google provided better results everywhere except for English language search information on desktop, where Bing’s results tied with Google’s.

Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella testified on Monday about his company’s negotiations to persuade Apple to make Bing the default search engine on the Safari browser rather than Google.

Mr Nadella said Microsoft was willing to lose billions of dollars if Apple made the switch.

Mr Mehta ruled on Wednesday that the testimony by Mr Weinberg and Mr Giannandrea “goes to the heart of the case” and should be released.

Some testimony about similar discussions between Microsoft and Apple also hadn’t been made public.

Talks about “partnership deals – I’m talking about the testimony concerning potential deals between Microsoft and Apple and DuckDuckGo and Apple – that will be unsealed”, Mr Mehta said in an order from the bench, adding that he viewed it as “critical to the case”.

Updated: October 05, 2023, 6:32 AM