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DuckDuckGo hits search milestone as online privacy war escalates

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A renewed focus on privacy and concerns about big tech knowing too much about our online habits have propelled DuckDuckGo to a new user milestone, the company says, hitting a search traffic milestone this month. The company – which offers an alternative to Google – hit 102,251,307 search queries on January 11, the first time it had broken through the nine-figure mark.

In 2020, DuckDuckGo saw over 1.5 billion total queries, the company said. Daily searches rose 62-percent last year, something DuckDuckGo credits an increase in awareness about privacy as fueling.

There’s been no shortage of that over the past couple of years. Online, tech behemoths like Google, Facebook, and others have been criticized for collecting more data than they necessarily need to, and monetizing users by combining the information gathered into increasingly complex profiles. It’s become a significant business opportunity, though one which is at the same time precarious: Apple’s moves to make ad network privacy policies more transparent met with fury from Facebook, which argued the changes could undermine its advertising products.

At the same time, however, there’s been an uptick in concern about products like smart speakers and other Internet of Things devices entering the home, often with always-listening microphones and persistent data connections. Amazon’s Alexa and the new Amazon Sidewalk private networking platform have come under fire from DuckDuckGo before now, with concerns that users are trading too much personal information in return for things like virtual assistant services.

DuckDuckGo launched back in 2008, compiling data from a variety of sources for its search results, but differing from most rivals in the data on users that it gathers. Search logs are kept, but not in a way that’s personally-identifiable, while IP addresses and user information are also not stored. Although the company sustains itself predominantly on keyword-based search ads, it says, that history doesn’t get collated with other searches you might have made. While not as broadly known as Google, Bing, and other search engines, DuckDuckGo is available on mobile devices too: indeed, it’s one of the options that Apple offers as a default on iOS.

“People are coming to us because they want more privacy, and it’s generally spreading through word of mouth,” Kamyl Bazbaz, VP of communications at DuckDuckGo, told USA Today. “People are looking for alternatives to the surveillance-tech business mode.”

It’s a timely milestone. Concerns about WhatsApp sharing chat data with Facebook earlier this month drove millions of users to look elsewhere for their messaging needs, with Telegram and Signal both reporting a significant uptick in new registrations. WhatsApp attempted damage control, pointing out that the contentious change in privacy policy only really impacted those using its service to communicate with businesses, but it’s unclear if that will be enough to stem the cross-platform messenger tide.

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Google just added an insanely useful desktop search shortcut

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Google has quietly rolled out a new search shortcut for desktop users that is deceptively useful during the workday. As of now, users can press a single key on Google’s search results page to pull back open the search field, updating the search term without ever lifting a hand to use the mouse or trackpad.

The new feature was ‘announced’ by a small message box desktop users see in the bottom corner of their search results page, as first spied by 9to5Google; it reads, ‘Press / to jump to the search box.’

When you press the ‘/’ button, your cursor moves to the text field at the end of your search query, enabling you to quickly remove and add terms or scroll down through the suggested search queries. The shortcut key only works when you’re on the search results page, not the home page.

This is ultimately a very small change, but one that proves insanely useful when you’re often using Google for work or school. The amount of time saved by avoiding the mouse entirely adds up over time, not to mention getting you to the search results you want faster.

It’s unclear whether the feature is now available for all Google Search users on desktop or if it is rolling out more slowly. Our own test of the new shortcut found that it worked, though we never saw the shortcut notification on the search results page.

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Amazon may start asking even more of its delivery drivers

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Amazon is reportedly set to trial a new home assembly service for larger items, where delivery drivers would also put together furniture, appliances, or other larger items. The move, which is said to be planned for just a handful of markets as the online retail behemoth gauges popularity and feasibility, could make home shopping even easier, though there are concerns that delivery drivers themselves may face impractical expectations.

Online shopping has surged during the pandemic, and Amazon has seen a considerable share of that extra business. Its subscription plan Amazon Prime, for example, surged by 50 million members in the space of a year, bringing the total to 200 million.

The retailer’s ambitions, however, go beyond dropping items off at the doorstep. While you can currently schedule the delivery of a particularly large item, and even have it left in a specific room, Amazon is said to be preparing an even more hands-on service. The assembly option would see the delivery person actually put the item together in the home, Bloomberg reports.

According to people familiar with the plans, they say, Amazon is looking to trial the premium service in Virginia and two other unnamed markets. Unlike Amazon Home Services – which offers recommended local contractors booked through Amazon’s system – assembly and installation of the purchases would be handled by the company’s own delivery staff.

Still, there’d be a limit to what could be offered. Amazon Home Services, for example, includes options for tasks like installing electric car chargers, something which would be beyond the remit of a delivery driver. Instead, it’s suggested, Amazon sees it more around doing basics like putting together sofas and living room furniture, or installing a straightforward appliance like a washing machine or dishwasher.

Amazon has declined to comment on the leak, but according to Bloomberg there’s some consternation among the company’s delivery drivers about just what might be expected of them. The retailer has already faced criticism about working conditions for delivery staff, with accusations of grueling workloads that leave them little time for bathroom breaks. Among the concerns were just how long Amazon managers might allot for assembly and installation, and the safety of spending extended periods inside customers’ homes during the pandemic which has helped make online shopping so popular.

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Dogecoin goes up and Robinhood goes down

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Some things in life you can count on, and it seems like Robinhood crashing just when the finance market is getting interesting is one of them. The popular finance service – which has seen particular success with first-time and novice investors – has been suffering several periods of downtime during volatility in crypto trading, particularly Elon Musk’s favored Dogecoin.

The cryptocurrency has certainly had a bizarre week – and, for that matter, an equally bizarre few months. Initially begun as a joke, the so-called “meme currency” gained traction when Tesla founder Elon Musk began pumping it on his Twitter account.

This past week, meanwhile, DOGE has surged in price. Although individual coins are still worth just a handful of cents, their value has shot up by almost 200-percent. Combined with the ease of entry, it’s left some holders with a huge return on their initial purchases, which were often made when Dogecoin was only a cent or two.

Problem is, you only see those returns when you sell, and that’s been tricky if you opted to purchase via Robinhood. The service has been encountering periods of downtime which just so happened to coincide with some of DOGE’s peaks over the past day or two.

“We’re experiencing intermittent issues with crypto trading due to heightened volumes,” Robinhood has warned on its support site at several points over the past 24 hours. “Because of this, some crypto trades may not execute right now.”

Within the past hour, Robinhood said that it had restored crypto trading “for most customers.” As for those who aren’t in that group, there’s only an apology to tide them over. “To anyone still affected, we’re sorry for the interruption,” the company added. “We’re working to restore service for everyone as soon as possible.

It’s not the first time Robinhood has left investors floundering. During the GameStop stock surge earlier this year, users suddenly found that they were unable to buy the volatile $GME stock. The limits were subsequently extended to other shares, including AMC. Robinhood defended its decision with an explanation of the mechanisms behind trading, but not before the moves caught the attention of lawmakers who have called for an investigation into whether it acted appropriately.

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