Enlarge /. Neeva doesn't even have a logo, let alone useful screenshots. Instead, enjoy this remix version of a coin-operated toilet lid dispenser from the 1940s.

In November 2017, Sridhar Ramaswamy, head of Google’s $ 95 billion advertising arm, left the company after a scandal about advertising for large companies that was found on YouTube videos and put children in questionable situations. Ramaswamy told the New York Times that shortly after the incident he decided to do something else in his life – because "an ad-financed model had limitations."

Ramaswamy's startup, Neeva, is "something different" – and while it's also a search engine, it tries to work around some of Google's problems by avoiding the ads altogether. According to Ramaswamy, no ads will appear in the new engine, and no user data will be collected or benefited. Instead, users are charged a subscription fee.

Neeva's approach follows an old truism that says that if you pay for something, you are a customer – but if you get it for free, you are a product. This is likely to be a very difficult sale to a public who expects a service to be "free" and often does not care much about privacy issues. Even if we wave our hand at the difficulty of acquiring a market, other privacy-minded actors are voicing considerable doubts about Neeva's approach.

Data protection-oriented competitors have doubts

Search engine DuckDuckGo is probably the best-known privacy-oriented Google competitor. DuckDuckGo delivers ads but doesn't track its users individually – its CEO, Gabriel Weinberg, says the ads are a practical necessity. "If you want to make the most impact on most people with privacy, you have to be free," he said, "because Google will be free forever."

However, DuckDuckGo may not be the most relevant comparison to Neeva. The new search engine is said to be a secondary provider, the public results of which come from Bing, Weather.com, Intrinio and Apple. It is also planned to offer its users the opportunity to link cloud accounts such as Google G Suite, Microsoft Office 365 and Dropbox. In addition to delivering search results directly from these private sources, Neeva also includes this data when creating a profile to personalize the search results for each user.

The home page is a closer analogue to Neeva's proposed model. Like Neeva, Startpage obtains the search results externally – in this case directly from Google. In contrast to Neeva, Startpage continues to display Google ads and collect part of the proceeds. However, these ads are displayed without trying to personalize them for the user. No profile is created and the potentially identifying information of the user is removed from the queries sent to Google.

Startpage CEO Robert E.G. Beens emailed Ars shortly after Neeva's launch. He was extremely skeptical of Neeva's model – he described the connections to private data, the creation of personal profiles, and long-term data retention as "a hacker's dream and a user's nightmare". He also expressed strong opinions about Neeva's actual privacy policy and called it "a joke – not a fun one" after realizing that "marketing messages can claim almost anything, but a privacy policy has a legal status."

We should note that there are two distinct sections on Neeva's website that appear to address privacy concerns – a digital Bill of Rights, prominently featured on the company's About page, and the official privacy policy, which is in the footer each page is linked more strictly.

Problematic privacy policy

Neeva's Digital Bill of Rights seems to be the kind of marketing message Beens was alluding to. It contains high statements on the rights of users to data protection, on the control of data collection, on the transparency of data usage and on the ownership of users of their own data. It also explains that companies should generally respect these rights – but there are no direct promises about whether or how Neeva will respect them. What comes closest to a concrete policy statement on the page is a line at the bottom that says, "We at Neeva stand by (these values) in solidarity with you."

<img alt = "We are doing it Not Passing on, disclosing or selling your personal data to third parties. Except when we do it. "src =" https://cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/neeva-privacy-policy-highlighted-640×484.png "width =" 640 "height =" 484 "srcset =" https : //cdn.arstechnica.net/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/neeva-privacy-policy-highlighted.png 2x”/>Enlarge /. We do it Not Passing on, disclosing or selling your personal data to third parties. Except when we do it.

In contrast, Neeva's privacy policy is a standard legal document and reads like one. It is also much more specific and contains some troubling details that contradict the lofty ideals expressed in Neeva's Digital Bill of Rights. The section passing on your data to third parties even seems to contradict each other.

Neeva opens this section by stating that your personal information will not be shared, shared or sold "outside of the required cases listed below". However, these necessary cases include "affiliates" with the very brusque statement that Neeva "may share personal information" with our affiliates. "

Although the subsections are secured for both service providers and advertising partners with usage restrictions, there are no such restrictions on data passed on to "partners". The document also does not contain a specific definition of who the term "partner" could refer to or in what context.

Long-term retention of private data

Security-conscious users should also be aware of Neeva's data retention policy, which simply states: "We store the personal information we receive as described in this privacy policy as long as you use our services or when necessary to fulfill the purposes for which they seem." was collected … (including the pursuit of) legitimate business purposes. "

Given that data collection can include a direct connection to a user's primary Google or Microsoft email account, this can lead to a really worrying amount of personal data – data that is now prone to compromise on the services of Neeva, as well as for the use or sale (in particular, in the event of a takeover or merger) by Neeva itself.

Current availability

Neeva is currently in a limited beta test and is not available for general use. Interested potential users can join a waiting list to become an early tester.

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