Brave buys a search engine, promises no tracking, no profiling – and may even offer a paid-for, no-ad version

Pitches pro-privacy platform with customizable results filter dubbed Goggles


Brave, maker of the identically named privacy-focused web browser, has acquired its own search engine to offer as an alternative to Google Search and competing search engines that exist but aren't all that visible in Google's shadow.

On Wednesday, the company plans to announce that it's taking over Tailcat, a search engine developed by Cliqz, another privacy-focused browser biz that aspired to compete with Google and shut down last year. The deal, terms undisclosed, makes Cliqz owner Hubert Burda Media a Brave shareholder.

Brave intends to make Tailcat the foundation of its own search service, Brave Search. The company hopes that its more than 25 million monthly active Brave customers will, after an initial period of testing and courtship, choose to make Brave Search their default search engine and will use it alongside other parts of its privacy-oriented portfolio, which also includes Brave Ads, news reader Brave Today, Brave Firewall+VPN, and video conferencing system Brave Together.

Brave Search, the company insists, will respect people's privacy by not tracking or profiling those using the service. And it may even offer a way to end the debate about search engine bias by turning search result output over to a community-run filtering system called Goggles.

The service will, eventually, be available as a paid option – for those who want to pay for search results without ads – though its more common incarnation is likely to be ad-supported, in conjunction with Brave Ads. The latter offers participants the option to receive 70 per cent of the payment made by the advertiser in a cryptocurrency called BAT (Brave Attention Token).

Eich lays out his vision

In an interview with The Register, Brendan Eich, CEO of Brave, argued that the demand for privacy is real and cannot be ignored. "I think the genie doesn't go back in the bottle," he said. "Consciousness doesn't revert."

People used to hear about credit card breaches at large retailers like Target, Eich said, and think that privacy is hopeless but not something that necessarily affects them directly. But then it became more personal as technologies like ad retargeting did things like spoiling surprise gifts by showing the ad for the purchased item again to the intended recipient.

I think privacy is here to stay and now the question is how people do it and market it effectively

Eich sees the dominance of US tech companies contributing to the interest in privacy and making it a matter of concern for regulators around the world.

"It's not political in the broken US sense – which is kind of a Punch and Judy show – it's more like there are people of various commitments on all sides of politics who are aware not only of privacy being violated over time by the big tech players but of the big tech players being abusive monopolies," he said.

Pointing to how many companies now make privacy claims, Eich said, "I think privacy is here to stay and now the question is how people do it and market it effectively. If you don't market it, you can lose to somebody who just puts privacy perfume on a pig and tells you it smells great and tastes delicious."

Eich's pitch is not that Brave Search aims to take on Google Search directly. He acknowledges that there's no way to match Google's vast index and ability to return relevant results for obscure (long tail) search terms. Rather, he sees an opportunity to improve specific types of search queries, referred to as vertical markets.

"Part of what we're trying to do here is innovate in the area where there's now monopoly," he said in reference to Google Search, which has a market share of something like 92 per cent."...The innovation through verticals is possible because it avoids having to take on Google's supreme competence, which is the rare or unique queries the long tail."

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"What we're trying to do is different, it's not based on crawling the web," Eich explained. "...Trying to crawl the whole web, it's not going to work. What Cliqz worked on..that's an anonymous query log aggregator, and a partial click log aggregator, to see when you don't convert on the search ad you leave the results page and you find the better results through some number of clicks."

Gathering that sort of query and click data requires consent, said Eich, and Brave isn't going to force Brave users to participate. But Cliqz started working on this and has a data set they called "the Human Web," and that's now the basis of Brave Search.

"The queries and the clicks matter but they are unlinkable," he said. "There has to be a property called record unlinkability. There's no IP address that gets dropped at the edge. Timing channels are blinded by adding some delays. And there's no way to say this query was from the same user as that query."

Brave Search's index there will be informed the activities of participating Brave users, in terms of the URLs they search for or click on, and adjacent web resources that don't require extensive crawling.

There's a theoretical risk users could poison the index through repeated visits to irrelevant or harmful web pages, knowing their activities would inform the index, but Eich suggests Brave is big and savvy enough to avoid being trolled in this way.

Brave also envisions users taking a more active role in their search results through a filtering mechanism.

"It allows different groups to run their own sort of Turing incomplete filter rules, sort of like ad blocking rules in the search service and not in the browser, to have a community moderated view of the global index," he explained. "It's called 'Goggles.'"

Eich observed with a chuckle that it isn't related to Google Goggles, an image recognition app that Google maintained from 2009 through 2018 until the arrival of Google Lens.

Shared search

The Brave Search team has written a paper [PDF] explaining its use of the term, titled "GOGGLES: Democracy dies in darkness, and so does the Web." The browser upstart aims to replace the tyranny of Google's inscrutable, authoritative index with a multiverse of indices defined by anyone with the inclination to do so.

Brave's vision of search is based on "an open and collaborative system by which a community, or a single user, can create sets of rules and filters, called Goggles, to define the space which a search engine can pull results from," the paper explains.

"Instead of a single ranking algorithm, we could have as many as needed, overcoming the biases that a single actor (the search engine) embeds into the results."

Goggles has its own Domain Specific Language (DSL) for writing search result filters. Brave hopes that Goggles will be adopted not only internally but among others search engines, too.

Brave Search users will be able to, for better or worse, see the world through filters they agree with or filters they detest. The point is it will be up to them rather than a large ad company located in Silicon Valley.

The Brave Search team acknowledges that not all filters will show results that are agreeable to everyone. "There will be Goggles created by creationists, anti-vaccination supporters or flat-earthers," the paper says. "However, the biases will be explicit, and therefore, the choice is a conscious one."

The paper contends that censorship will be unnecessary since illegal content should be caught by the host search engine and removed from the search index so no Goggle can see it in the first place.

"Brave is bringing back the idea of a user-first thick client, or a muscular client," said Eich, differentiating his browser from just being "a blind servant of ad tech that runs all the JavaScript Google throws at it." ®


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