The 2018 VivaTech show is full up. The crowd is closely listening as Qwant’s CEO, Eric Leandri, unveils his brand new “ethical search engine” as well as his company’s new software. Good-naturedly, he goes on to list all the services they will provide from September 2018 onward. They look to be closely matched with the services provided by Google, but are according to him, “respectful of private life” as well as being European based. Qwant maps (a mapping service without private data storage), Qwant mail (an email service which does not scan private messages), or even a mobile payment service, this service system will (unlike Google) finally allow Europe its digital sovereignty.
Originally, however, not many believed in a “European Google” and few were the media outlets that would have bet on Qwant. But in the space of five years only, the French search engine Qwant has managed to be taken seriously. It embodies more and more an “ethical alternative” to the American giant.
Creating a “Real Alternative”
In July 2013, under the hot Nice sun, Jean-Manuel Rozan, Patrick Constant, and Eric Leandri brought out the champagne. Two years earlier, they had started developing “Qwant” (combination of the letter “Q” which invokes the idea of quantity and links it to Big Data, and “want” which signifies the idea of research) a search engine which they wanted to be “European” and different from Google and Bing. “It would respect your private life, be neutral, and would bring you all the results from the Web as well as Social Media. Basically, it would be the search engine as it should be: whole, neutral, open and ethical.”, explains Eric Leandri, who was also ex-assistant director of Mobilegov Saas and TrustMission (two digital security startups).
During its 2013 official release in 15 countries and in 35 languages, Qwant was critically acclaimed by the media as the official “Google Killer”. Opposite the “American ogre”, Eric Leandri’s project is presented as “crazy”, an “impossible mission”, because, as Métro writes “rare are the new search engines willing to launch on a market dominated by Google.”, who holds 90% of the market in France.
At first, to finance its patents, its algorithms and its servers, Qwant was only endowed with a three million euros investment, which mainly stemmed from its founders’ relatives. Neither did it generate revenue from its engine – though, in short, it hopes to generate some from ads. Their success is uncertain, but the company believes in their fate. “When we began developing Qwant in 2011, we had just seen a window open for us. Larry Page, Google’s General Director, had just explained that his search engine was “a universe”. He then began presenting, not just the web’s search results, but Google’s services first. It is also at this time that he sped up the tracking of users, so that he could provide content for his information services.” Eric Leandri tells us.
“It was then that we decided we would have to give full access to the Web, all the while offering a search engine that would not exploit its users information or filter search results based on their use of the engine. Before, when Google was the only firm able to stir through massive amounts of data thanks to its infrastructure, we would never have been able to attack this market. But thanks to open source, it became possible to rival Google using modest means.”, remembers Qwant’s co-founder.
Today, the company has gone from 10 employees to 80, and has a few offices as well; one in Nice for engineering, in Rouen for IT security and servers, and one in Paris for marketing and management. In the brand-new Paris premises, Guillaume Champeau looks back on what pushed him to go to the company after 15 years at the head of Numerama, a tech news website. “From the moment I founded my website in 2001 to 2015, I was writing articles on basic human rights on the internet, freedom of speech, private life protection… and in the end, I wanted to take that further.”, the lawyer-in-training recalls.
After yielding Numerama to the Humanoid group, he started a Masters degree in International and European Basic Human Rights. “I wanted to start being active on this topic and there was at least one French company offering a real alternative: Qwant.” Now become legal affairs and technical manager , he takes care of all topics linked to ethics and respecting international regulations, notably the General Data Protection Regulation. For him, Qwant is not a search engine like the others. “We promote lasting digital developments with the conviction that we will no longer keep going deeper into people’s private lives, like what Google is doing for example. One day we will either live in a dystopian society with no private life or there will be, we hope, a breaking point.” Guillaume Champeau estimates that, the day internet users want to “take back control of their private data, Qwant will be there.”
Moving past criticism
Quickly after its praises, reviews for Qwant start flooding in. “This is not a search engine made in France, but a metacrawler.” writes Lucien Thedore, the blogger behind bad buzz. Qwant then explain that they are building their own site indexation system, but that they are provisionally using data, “collected from other engines” during their “strong infrastructure building phase.” Hence after this false start, Qwant is quickly deploying their own technology.
But the damage is already done and the search engine will long remain the target of all sarcasm. “I myself, when I first discovered Qwant, wrote many negative reviews because I couldn’t see how it would work.” remembers Guillaume Champeau with a little smile. The ex-journalist tells us that before Qwant, two attempts at European search engines, Exalead and Quaero, both supported by the EU, had failed. “Because there had been no public expectation for a search engine other than Google, and because they weren’t really proposing anything radically different.”
Still with a smile, Guillaume Champeau confides that in reality, he was wrong. He explains, “I hadn’t understood two things: firstly; that people had started being conscious of issues relating to the lack of private life respect since the Snowden affair; and secondly, that if projects like Exalead and Quareo had failed, it was because they came from a political and not entrepreneurial decision… While, Qwant was founded by entrepreneurs, with an entrepreneur’s vision. Which allowed them to be taken more seriously, and to make internal decisions that are more in line with the current market and what the public wants.”
Eric Leandri remembers the criticism in the beginning: “at the time, Google was seen as a key player that offered many things to the Web. Our crawler capacity was not huge (5 million indexed pages a day), and so too was our quality minimal. We had to brush criticism aside because we were only starting our work, nobody thought we would make money from this. But at the same time, we were able to assemble a wave of supporters around our project (SEOs, nerds, people that are passionate about the internet), and they helped us improve our engine.
The Only Ethical Search Engine
During five discrete years, Qwant developed considerably. In June,, the search engine passed 80 million individual users a month. While some see this as a consequence of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, Guillaume Champeau prefers to nuance. “It has been a year and a half that Qwant has been increasing in popularity by 20% each month. Looking at that, we can’t point to the GDPR and the Cambridge Analytica as the cause of our notoriety.”, he explains with a shrug. He adds, “At the start, we had a core of users (activists conscious of the issues facing the respect of private life), then mouth to ear happened, people started hearing about Qwant, using it, and realised that it functioned very well and that search results were equal to Google results for 95% of their searches.”
And the press was done with their criticisms. “Those that, at the start, looked at us in a condescending or indifferent way, started to understand around 2015-2016 that we were serious. Not to mention that today, people are more conscious of the use of their private data by the Web’s giants.” notes Qwant’s Ethics and Legal Affairs Officer.
But if there is one thing to avoid with the Qwant team, it is speaking to them of their “Google-Killer” image. For Eric Leandri “the objective is not to be the anti-Google, but being an alternative, with a different society project.” The company’s business model is also different: while Google uses their users’ browsing history and geo-mapping to sell sponsored spaces and personalise their results, Qwant has chosen the “affiliation” system. The company earns money through ads, “but the ad and search results will be the same for all.” Is such a system profitable? “That is our goal, but if we are only thinking about money we would be selling our data while distancing ourselves from our project of being an ethical engine.” According to Eric Leandri, Qwant is in fact “the only search engine that does not track its users.” Because, as he explains “even DuckDuckGo does it, using data from Google.”
Today, to the public eye, Qwant is seen as the European search engine that would allow the old continent to gain its digital sovereignty. “We only have to look at the tensions between the US and the EU. Nothing says that one day, North Americans won’t threaten to pull Google and Facebook from Europe. There and then, we won’t be able to get angry with them, as a lot of European companies depend on both. In this scenario, Qwant would be the alternative.” underlines Guillaume Champeau.
Competing with Google
If Qwant is trying to diversify itself by creating “services” alternative to Google’s own (Maps, Mail, Pay…), it is “to create global secure environment for users, that is as diverse, as attractive and as useful as Google, but with a respect for people’s private lives and a protection of data as well.” notes Eric Leandri.
To continue its development in competition with Google, the startup will need additional funds (without necessarily counting on the 10 billion innovation funds promised by Emmanuel Macron, which Jean-Manuel Rozan considers “not ambitious enough”) , but it will also have to try to personalise search results without keeping users’ private data. Guillaume Champeau explains “tomorrow, we will launch a technology that will allow you to store your own data at home, without us having access to it.” In its final phase this system will be open source, in order to “promote a new generation of ethical and personalised services.”
In the meantime, Qwant is trying to break up Google’s monopoly via justice. Following a complaint, for which the company is partially to blame, the European Commission forced the Tech giant to open its Android OS, allowing users to use other default browsers apart from Google since the start of 2018. “But the firm keeps a tight lock on the market: on iOS, they pay Apple hundreds of millions every year to be the default browser on Safari; and on Android, even if Chrome has opened up a little, you first need to search for Qwant before setting it as the default browser. Internet users do not know this and so won’t do it.” observes Guillaume Champeau. A decision from the European Commission should soon be here. He explains again that “we need the system to be completely unlocked so that another engine designer can come along and propose another browser to users from the moment that people set up their phones for the first time. Today, designers do not have the right to do this. We just need to break the lock in order to make the browser market a bit more healthy.”
Is the surge in Qwant users a good sign? “Mindsets are changing, the need is real, but there is still a great amount of the public to be convinced, who aren’t conscious of the stakes.” estimates Guillaume. According to him, by 2020 the browser should account for 5 to 10% of the European market. “Because privacy respecting engines should have the same impact as organic foods, that is, becoming popular due to an increase in consciousness and sustainable development.”