Cliqz pulls the plug on a European anti-tracking alternative to Google search

Cliqz, a Munch-based anti-tracking browser with private search baked in that has sought to offer a local alternative to Google powered by its own search index, is shutting down — claiming this arm of its business has been blindsided by the coronavirus crisis.

The bigger challenge is of course competing in a market so dominated by Google.

In Europe, where the tech giant’s search engine commands a marketshare approaching 95%, trying to lure users to an alternative ecosystem is difficult at the best of times, and a pandemic is certainly not that.

“We didn’t see a pandemic coming,” Cliqz wrote in a farewell blog post yesterday. “We didn’t expect that a virus could have impact on Cliqz. And even just one and a half months ago, we completely underestimated what this would do to the economy and even more so to the political priorities. It became clear to us in the last weeks, that all political initiatives to create an independent European digital infrastructure have been stalled or postponed for years. Covid-19 is overshadowing everything. This is not a climate where we will have any meaningful discussion about a public funding of a solution like Cliqz.”

It’s been a long road for Cliqz, which was founded back in 2008 — initially focused on German-speaking markets. The browser was a fork of Mozilla’s Firefox, and Cliq went on to take investment from Mozilla, in 2016, when it was eyeing expanding to more markets.

In 2017 it acquired the Ghostery anti-tracking tool, which had around 8 million users at the time, with the aim of combining algorithmic and blocklist anti-tracking approaches. But the wider challenge for Cliqz’s browser+search effort was not a lack of tech but the difficulty of building broad backing for its alternative approach.

The farewell blog post says the company failed to raise enough awareness among mainstream web users to convince them to step off Alphabet’s beaten path. But it’s also true that, in recent years, mainstream browsers have been baking in anti-tracking and steadily upping their own splashy privacy claims.

Even Google has said it will phase out third party cookie tracking in its Chrome browser — so the available space for ‘easy’ differentiation around privacy is shrinking. Unless you can clearly and powerfully articulate key technical nuance and complex wider market dynamics related to how user data is passed around in the background.

There is also ongoing regulatory failure in Europe around privacy, despite a recently updated data protection framework, with many national watchdogs failing to grasp the nettle of rampant unlawful online tracking.

The lack of GDPR enforcement against major tech and adtech platforms also means there’s been less succour for those businesses that are making privacy respecting choices than they might have been led to expect, having read the rules on paper.

“We failed to make people truly aware of the problem; we failed to reach a scale that would allow our search engine to be self-financing,” Cliqz writes. “We have reached several hundred thousand daily users. But — and this is the disadvantage of running our own technology — this is not enough to run a search engine, to cover our costs. And most of all, we failed to convince the political stakeholders, that Europe desperately needs an own independent digital infrastructure.”

While the Cliqz browser and search is being shuttered, the company is not closing down entirely — and a spokesman confirmed Ghostery will continue.

Cliqz investor, Hubert Burda Media, which holds a majority stake in the business, said Thursday that the resulting “restructuring” of the business will affect 45 employees — “for whom individual solutions are currently being sought”.

“The 100% Cliqz subsidiary Ghostery, headed by Jeremy Tillman, will continue to bundle Cliqz’s expertise in the area of ​​anti-tracking,” it wrote. “In addition, a team of experts will be formed from Cliqz, which will take care of technical issues such as artificial intelligence, search and the influence of technology on media.”

Burda added that it’s looking at a possible integration of Cliqz’s MyOffrz unit — aka the division that had sought to monetize use of the anti-tracking browser via contextually targeted (and thus privacy sensitive) ads.

In a wider statement on the restructuring, Burda CEO Paul-Bernhard Kallen said: “We have invested in Cliqz for years because we believe that Europe needs its own digital infrastructure to stay fit for the future. Without the necessary political structures at European level for this, however, we will not be able to overcome the superiority of the tech giants from the USA and China. In addition, the Corona pandemic is unlikely to lead to a far-reaching innovation program in Europe in the foreseeable future, so that we can no longer drive this path alone. I very much regret this because the basic idea of ​​establishing a counterweight to the USA and China in the European search sector is still the right one.”