Dear PrivacyTools community,

On the 15th of October, it was brought to our attention that Startpage.com was reportedly (partially?) taken over by a company called the Privacy One Group, which is in turn owned by a company called System1. We found this quite remarkable as the two companies seem to have conflicting business models. Startpage has been known for basing their advertisements on what their users enter in their search bar. System1 on the other hand, is a pay-per-click advertising company that "has developed a pre-targeting platform that identifies and unlocks  consumer intent across channels including social, native, email, search,  market research and lead generation rather than relying solely on what  consumers enter into search boxes."

We reached out to System1 CEO Ian Weingarten for an explanation. We received a very general response that did not address key questions.

Seemingly prompted by our ongoing concerns, Startpage released a public letter addressed to us from their CEO, and hosted a Q&A on their Subreddit to try and explain the situation. While some of our questions were answered, we noted that the company seemed to be evasive, essentially restating information from a previously published blog post or posting the same response to different questions. People had to really dig to get answers and puzzle all information together, instead of getting a clearly explained and comprehensive answer from the start. Requests for clarification to some important questions went ignored.

Because of the conflicting business model and the unusual way the company reacted, claiming to be fully transparent but being evasive at the same time, we have no choice but to de-list Startpage from our recommendations until it is fully transparent about its new ownership and data processing. Remaining questions include:

  • The % of Startpage and Surfboard Holding B.V. (the Startpage holding company) System1 acquired in December 2018.
  • The current % ownership by System1 at the time of the audit (and any other major owners).
  • Information about Privacy One Group Ltd. Where is it registered and in what city, state and country does it operate? (We have not been able to verify registration information.)
  • A diagram of data flows, including flows to outside organizations, like System1, Privacy One etc.

This de-listing does not necessarily mean Startpage is violating its privacy policy. We have no evidence of that. But because there are still so many unanswered questions, we can no longer recommend the service with good confidence. If Startpage aims to be re-considered, they will have to answer the questions above, preferably along with an explanation of why it took them so long to get proper answers out to the public.

Sincerely,
Blacklight447
Editor-in-Chief, PrivacyTools