Interview with System1’s Co-Founder and CEO Michael Blend

Recently I had the opportunity to chat with System1’s CEO Michael Blend to discuss the 2019 partnership with the privacy respecting search engine Startpage.

The news of this partnership rocked the privacy community. Thankfully, Startpage Co Founder and CEO Robert E.G. Beens answered the community’s questions and put anti-privacy rumors to rest. Furthermore, since the announcement the private search engine has shown that Startpage’s mission hasn’t changed, but rather has enhanced their privacy services. However, questions have still remained as to the relationship with System1 and why they would want a search engine that does not track its users.

When I agreed to interview Mr. Blend, I made it clear I wasn’t going to softball my questions and I wanted to know as much as I could about the company and its plans.

What I learned is printed below, unedited straight from the CEO’s mouth. An enlightening look at the history and future of System1 and the place they believe Startpage and other privacy respecting services have among their impressive group of companies.

In your own words, how would you describe System1?

System1 is a search and applications internet company with a growing focus on consumer privacy and security. We founded the company in Venice, CA in 2013. Since then, we’ve assembled an incredible group of engineers, creators and data scientists, made strategic investments, acquired several companies, and expanded our offices around the world.

It appears that historically, System1 has collected data in a more traditional fashion. What made you interested in exploring investments in the privacy industry?

Our focus at System1 has always been on helping people have the best internet experience. We started the company with the mission of eliminating disruptive or harmful advertising by matching people with the most relevant advertising from the best companies. Over the years, we have built a technology platform that incorporates digital advertising to grow new audiences and market content and products.

We have strived to market our properties using the most people-friendly ways possible. As data privacy became more important to our users and the internet community in general, we decided to make a large company-wide investment into protecting consumer privacy and security. It is our belief that moving forward, the privacy practices of a product, service and company will be a leading factor in whether people decide to use the offering.

The decision to specifically invest in Startpage was based on its robust privacy policy, impressive tech and unique ability to deliver Google search results. Furthermore, we have absolute faith in the Startpage team to continue to provide the world’s most private search engine. When System1 & Startpage decided to team up, both companies made a commitment to continue and further strengthen Startpage’s privacy components. We are proud that the past 2 years have shown that we have honored that commitment, and that Startpage users have continued to entrust us to maintain our strict privacy standards.

How do you imagine recreating such successful advertising models while respecting consumer privacy?

Startpage has been a profitable company since 2006 without storing or sharing any personal information on people using its search engine. Their revenue is generated from contextual ads based on a person’s search term. Meaning if a person searches for “bicycles,” they will see ads from brands who paid for the search term keyword “bicycles,” and NOT based on other personal data.

System1 has absolutely no intention to change this process or revenue stream on Startpage. Instead, we see it aligned with our practice of delivering diversified advertising that’s relevant and safe.

To be transparent, on other System1 products, not Startpage, we do practice targeted behavioral advertising and are clear about this within the privacy policy. People want advertising that is relevant, but do not want to be profiled. Successful advertising can be achieved by showing people ads relevant to what they are currently engaging with.

The investment in Startpage created pretty big waves in the privacy world, seeing as how it seemed at face value to be antithetical to your current business model. What was it that drew you to their service?

We understand the concern that has been expressed and that we have to earn and always keep the community’s trust. We welcome continued scrutiny by the privacy community to ensure that we maintain Startpage’s strict privacy standards. Last year, Startpage even published its data flow which no other private search engine has done.

Startpage was the ideal decision for us because we wanted to team up with the most authentic privacy-focused company in the world. Startpage’s founders have never wavered from that purpose and mission, even at the expense of significant financial opportunity cost. This commitment to the mission of privacy is what drew us to the team and the product. We knew this was the approach we wanted to take as we entered into the privacy space.

A lot of concern raised about the partnership revolves around trust. Consumers want to know how they can trust a more traditional advertising company to respect their privacy. What assurance can you offer those consumers that System1 won’t utilize Startpage in the way it does other assets?

We completely understood the initial concern, and we are proud that we have shown for the last 2 years our commitment to keeping Startpage as the world’s most private search engine. We know that if we violate people’s trust in any way, Startpage will be out of business. Practically speaking, this would make our investment a complete failure and be a terrible mark on System1. Beyond that, System1 as a company has a long history of honoring its commitments. System1 is interested in Startpage’s unique product and growing contextual ad revenue — not its data.

As part of our partnership with Startpage, we took many steps to structure our arrangement in a way to maximize consumer privacy. Startpage continues to be operated out of the Netherlands and, therefore, is protected by EU privacy legislation. Furthermore, the Startpage founders have the contractual right to review and approve any product or technical changes that may impact user privacy.

What led to the creation of Privacy One Group and how is it different from System1? What does the future of Privacy One Group look like?

Privacy One Group is the operational home for our privacy-focused service offerings and applications to serve people, advertisers and other service providers. We are interested in adding to our suite of privacy-focused offerings where we believe we can accelerate that opportunity.

I imagine Startpage is only the beginning. What other privacy investments are being considered?

We are spending a lot of time thinking about where privacy is headed and how we can provide a compelling suite of products for people. Last year we acquired the Waterfox browser, which is known for, among other things, being privacy friendly. We are also working on a private mapping solution in our MapQuest business. We believe a combined offering, which could include VPN and other privacy-related services, would be a very interesting privacy bundle for our users. Stay tuned!

Are there any recent acquisitions or products in development you can talk about now?

System1 continues to grow and innovate, and we are always looking for products or teams that can help us further our mission of making the Internet a better place for people. If you know a company or person with a viable product that helps people have the best Internet experience — we would love to hear from them!

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