Search for Good with


By: Ross Sempek

In my review of “Surveillance Valley”, I noted that the author’s exposé of the history of the Internet was ultimately met with an anticlimax: Despite the scandalous nature of the Internet’s beginnings, and due to its insurmountable ubiquity, we must now use it for good in order to counter its checkered past.

Exactly how to do this eluded me, and brainstorms became riddled with roadblocks. I thought: “Perhaps I could use my personal interest in online privacy to educate patrons about the risks associated with using social media,” but this is easier said than done, and opportunities to do this are scarce. Even still, I felt like I had to do something – it feels painfully fatalist and hypocritical to resign myself to willfully operating within a paradigm I am at philosophical odds with: I decry Google, but use gmail; I can’t stand Amazon, but watch; I eschew using phones in social settings yet I am guilty of doing exactly that. UGH.

So this blog is an ideal outlet to utilize my passions and learn/opine about the modern privacy landscape. But even so in real-life I don’t want to be that guy. Sure I’ll talk about my ideas if asked, and the tinfoil hat will only come out for those open-minded few. Otherwise I generally respect people’s choices – you won’t find me scoffing if one of my friends mentions a genuine affinity for Facebook or Instagram. I used to use them myself. I get it. I’m not above all that.

Indeed, turning ideas into action is difficult – especially ideas that are anomalous within the values of the status-quo. So it’s no small feat that Christian Kroll actually did something with respect to doing-good-with-the-internet and in 2009 created the search-engine, Ecosia, to reap philanthropy from the double-edged culture of immediacy engendered by the Internet.

Ecosia is a nonprofit company who regularly commits nearly half of their income to vetted charities around the world that plant trees. So any time you query their search engine or click on ads in your list of results, you directly affect a thoughtful re-oxidation of our pale blue dot. And by their count, they’ve planted over 67 million trees and counting. Neat, huh? But perennially wary of unadulterated altruism, the skeptic (cynic?) in me said, “Whoa, bro. This is too good to be true.” And I was like, “Yeah, you got a point…” So the two of us teamed up to learn a bit more about Ecosia and this strange human propensity to give.

Ecosia officially got its start in 2009, but this was informed by two years of prior travel in which Kroll experimented with business plans including one in which he ventured to provide a search engine for the people of Nepal. This project failed, as did others, but ever the persistent entrepreneur, Kroll transformed this experience into success and eventually teamed up with Google in order to launch his tree-planting search-engine. Dubbed “Forestle,” this delightfully pronounceable company was short-lived as Google dropped him due to their concerns about third-party search engines that were charitable organizations. Google said they were ultimately fearful of “fraudulent clicks” in connection with nonprofits, and in order to optimize their advertisers’ ability to accurately process data, severed ties with Kroll and other such search-engines. Afterward Kroll partnered with Yahoo, and eventually with Bing which is Ecosia’s current search-engine partner.

Initially, Kroll’s split with Google appeared, to me, to be motivated by privacy ethics; Ecosia’s privacy policy is one of the most hermetic I’ve seen. They actually honor your browser’s “do not track” setting, and anonymize data after at most seven days. But in what I find a disappointing reality, said split had nothing to do with a philosophical battle over privacy.

Regardless of their need to rely on Microsoft’s search capabilities, seems on the level, and surpasses what’s expected of any one human being. Christian Kroll helped to change the world and asks little in return: Make the choice to use his search engine. So in lieu of doing something as awesome as Mr. Kroll, I’m happy to at least consciously change my ere-subconscious habits in the name of charity, with a commitment to privacy to boot!

Ross Sempek

Ross Sempek is a recent MLIS graduate and a Library Assistant at the Happy Valley Public Library just outside of Portland, Oregon. He comes from a blue-collar family that values art, literature, and an even consideration for all world-views. This informs his passion for intellectual freedom, which he considers to be the bedrock for blooming to one’s fullest potential. It defines this country’s unique freedoms and allows an unfettered fulfillment of one’s purpose in life. When he is not actively championing librarianship, he loves lounging with his cat, cycling, and doing crossword puzzles – He’s even written a handful of puzzles himself.

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