As TC readers know, the tricky trade-off of the modern web is privacy for convenience. Online tracking is how this ‘great intimacy robbery’ is pulled off. Mass surveillance of what Internet users are looking at underpins Google’s dominant search engine and Facebook’s social empire, to name two of the highest profile ad-funded business models.
TechCrunch’s own corporate overlord, Verizon, also gathers data from a variety of end points — mobile devices, media properties like this one — to power its own ad targeting business.
Countless others rely on obtaining user data to extract some perceived value. Few if any of these businesses are wholly transparent about how much and what sort of private intelligence they’re amassing — or, indeed, exactly what they’re doing with it. But what if the web didn’t have to be like that?
Berlin-based Xayn wants to change this dynamic — starting with personalized but privacy-safe web search on smartphones.
Today it’s launching a search engine app (on Android and iOS) that offers the convenience of personalized results but without the ‘usual’ shoulder surfing. This is possible because the app runs on-device AI models that learn locally. The promise is no data is ever uploaded (though trained AI models themselves can be).
The team behind the app, which is comprised of 30% PhDs, has been working on the core privacy vs convenience problem for some six years (though the company was only founded in 2017); initially as an academic research project — going on to offer an open source framework for masked federated learning, called XayNet. The Xayn app is based on that framework.
They’ve raised some €9.5 million in early stage funding to date — with investment coming from European VC firm Earlybird; Dominik Schiener (Iota co-founder); and the Swedish authentication and payment services company, Thales AB.
Now they’re moving to commercialize their XayNet technology by applying it within a user-facing search app — aiming for what CEO and co-founder, Dr Leif-Nissen Lundbæk bills as a “Zoom”-style business model, in reference to the ubiquitous videoconferencing tool which has both free and paid users.
This means Xayn’s search is not ad-supported. That’s right; you get zero ads in search results.
Instead, the idea is for the consumer app to act as a showcase for a b2b product powered by the same core AI tech. The pitch to business/public sector customers is speedier corporate/internal search without compromising commercial data privacy.
Lundbæk argues businesses are sorely in need of better search tools to (safely) apply to their own data, saying studies have shown that search in general costs around 18% of working time globally. He also cites a study by one city authority that found staff spent 37% of their time at work searching for documents or other digital content.
“It’s a business model that Google has tried but failed to succeed,” he argues, adding: “We are solving not only a problem that normal people have but also that companies have… For them privacy is not a nice to have; it needs to be there otherwise there is no chance of using anything.”
On the consumer side there will also be some premium add-ons headed for the app — so the plan is for it to be a freemium download.
Swipe to nudge the algorithm
One key thing to note is Xayn’s newly launched web search app gives users a say in whether the content they’re seeing is useful to them (or not).
It does this via a Tinder-style swipe right (or left) mechanic that lets users nudge its personalization algorithm in the right direction — starting with a home screen populated with news content (localized by country) but also extending to the search result pages.
The news-focused homescreen is another notable feature. And it sounds like different types of homescreen feeds may be on the premium cards in future.
Another key feature of the app is the ability to toggle personalized search results on or off entirely — just tap the brain icon at the top right to switch the AI off (or back on). Results without the AI running can’t be swiped, except for bookmarking/sharing.
Elsewhere, the app includes a history page which lists searches from the past seven days (by default). The other options offered are: Today, 30 days, or all history (and a bin button to purge searches).
There’s also a ‘Collections’ feature that lets you create and access folders for bookmarks.
As you scroll through search results you can add an item to a Collection by swiping right and selecting the bookmark icon — which then opens a prompt to choose which one to add it to.
The swipe-y interface feels familiar and intuitive, if slightly laggy to load content in the TestFlight beta version TechCrunch checked out ahead of launch.
Swiping left on a piece of content opens a bright pink color-block stamped with a warning ‘x’. Keep going and you’ll send the item vanishing into the ether, presumably seeing fewer like it in future.
Whereas a swipe right affirms a piece of content is useful. This means it stays in the feed, outlined in Xayn green. (Swiping right also reveals the bookmark option and a share button.)
While there are pro-privacy/non-tracking search engines on the market already — such as US-based DuckDuckGo or France’s Qwant — Xayn argues the user experience of such rivals tends to fall short of what you get with a tracking search engine like Google, i.e. in terms of the relevance of search results and thus time spent searching.
Simply put: You probably have to spend more time ‘DDGing’ or ‘Qwanting’ to get the specific answers you need vs Googling — hence the ‘convenience cost’ associated with safeguarding your privacy when web searching.
Xayn’s contention is there’s a third, smarter way of getting to keep your ‘virtual clothes’ on when searching online. This involves implementing AI models that learn on-device and can be combined in a privacy-safe way so that results can be personalized without putting people’s data at risk.
“Privacy is the very fundament… It means that quite like other privacy solutions we track nothing. Nothing is sent to our servers; we don’t store anything of course; we don’t track anything at all. And of course we make sure that any connection that is there is basically secured and doesn’t allow for any tracking at all,” says Lundbæk, explaining the team’s AI-fuelled, decentralized/edge-computing approach.
Xayn is drawing on a number of search index sources, including (but not solely) Microsoft’s Bing, per Lundbæk, who described this bit of what it’s doing as “relatively similar” to DuckDuckGo (which has its own web crawling bots).
The big difference is that it’s also applying its own reranking algorithms in order generate privacy-safe personalized search results (whereas DDG uses a contextual ads-based business model — looking at simple signals like location and keyword search to target ads without needing to profile users).
The downside to this sort of approach, according to Lundbæk, is users can get flooded with ads — as a consequence of the simpler targeting meaning the business serves more ads to try to increase chances of a click. And loads of ads in search results obviously doesn’t make for a great search experience.
“We get a lot of results on device level and we do some ad hoc indexing — so we build on the device level and on index — and with this ad hoc index we apply our search algorithms in order to filter them, and only present you what is more relevant and filter out everything else,” says Lundbæk, sketching how Xayn works. “Or basically downgrade it a bit… but we also try to keep it fresh and explore and also bump up things where they might not be super relevant for you but it gives you some guarantees that you won’t end up in some kind of bubble.”
Some of what Xayn’s doing is in the arena of federated learning (FL) — a technology Google has been dabbling in in recent years, including pushing a ‘privacy-safe’ proposal for replacing third party tracking cookies. But Xayn argues the tech giant’s interests, as a data business, simply aren’t aligned with cutting off its own access to the user data pipe (even if it were to switch to applying FL to search).
Whereas its interests — as a small, pro-privacy German…