Booking.com promises to end manipulative sales practices in the EU

If you have ever been to one of the big hotel and flight booking portals on the Internet, you may have noticed sentences like “Only 1 room like this left on our site”, “other persons showed interest in this hotel in the last 24 hours”, “the room is popular”, or “time limited offer”.

Hotel and flight booking portals like Booking.com use these to  convey a sense of urgency to people interested in finding a hotel or flight in order for them to make rash decisions.

booking.com changes eu

According to a Reuters report, Booking.com will stop using manipulative sales practices in the European Union from June 16, 2020 onward.

The European Commission said on Friday that Booking.com had committed to end “manipulative techniques” on its travel site, such as time-limits for making bookings and misrepresentation of discounts.

One of the main issues that the European Commission had was that some of the information that Booking.com displayed on its site would not provide any context. The “only x rooms” message for example meant only that Booking.com could not provide any more rooms to interested users but it did not necessarily mean that the hotel itself or competing services would not have any rooms either anymore.

The European Commission noticed other practices that it considered anti-consumer. Booking.com used sales and promotions to advertise certain hotel room offers but when these ran out, it was often the case that the price would not change at all.

Changes that Booking.com will implement by June 2020 include making it clearer that the number of rooms available only reflect rooms available through Booking.com and not necessarily other portals or the hotel directly.

Other changes include stopping the practice of highlighting offers as time limit if the same price applies after the time limit expires, that discounts “represented genuine savings”, that the total price is displayed in a “clear way”, and to indicate whether an accommodation is offered by a private host or professional.

The Competition and Markets Authority in the UK managed to get formal commitments from six online hotel booking sites after it launched an investigation in sales practices in late 2017. The six sites, among them Booking.com, Expedia, and Trivago, “provided formal commitments to change practices on their websites which the CMA considers may be misleading consumers”.

Now You: do you book hotels and flights online?

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Vivaldi 2.10 is out with compatibility improvements

A new version of the Vivaldi web browser was released on December 19, 2019. Vivaldi 2.10 features compatibility improvements and usability enhancements.

Vivaldi 2.10 is already available as an in-browser update. Vivaldi users may select Menu > Help > Check for updates to run a manual update check or wait until the new version is pushed to the device automatically.

The new version of Vivaldi is also available on the official company website for all supported operating systems.

Tip: find out how to speed up the Vivaldi web browser.

Vivaldi 2.10

vivaldi 2.10

Vivaldi Technologies noticed that some sites on the Internet would block access to the Vivaldi browser outright or modify functionality instead; this is caused by sites using user-agent sniffing to determine the browser that is connecting to the site.

Vivaldi is based on Chromium and it should work on all sites that Chrome and other Chromium browsers work on. While that is the case, some sites did block Vivaldi in the past nevertheless.

To improve compatibility, Vivaldi engineers decided to drop the Vivaldi part of the user agent string to prevent sites from discriminating against the browser.

Vivaldi uses the classic user agent only on a certain number of sites including several search engines and the company’s own website.

The latest Windows version of Vivaldi returns the following user agent at the time of writing:

Mozilla/5.0 (Windows NT 10.0; Win64; x64) AppleWebKit/537.36 (KHTML, like Gecko) Chrome/79.0.3945.94 Safari/537.36

Vivaldi created a video that explains the concept further:

Another new feature in Vivaldi 2.10 introduces support for matching the browser user interface to the color scheme used by the operating system. The feature needs to be enabled under Settings > Themes > Scheduled Themes > Use Operating System Theme so that any pre-installed or custom theme may be used in light or dark mode.

The last stable Vivaldi release of 2019 features a number of additional improvements. The browser’s Quick Commands feature should perform better than before. Additionally, users may notice address bar and extensions improvements (toggle) in the new browser version.

As is the case with every Vivaldi release, the browser’s core has been updated to a new Chromium version.

Closing Words

User agent sniffing is abused in this day and age, sometimes by large Internet companies that operate browsers of their own. The change should improve compatibility significantly and reduce the likelihood of Vivaldi users running into sites that don’t load properly or block access outright.

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5 Best Mozilla Firefox Privacy-focused Add-ons

If you’re a privacy enthusiast, you might be using one of the best open-source web browsers: Mozilla Firefox. Even if you don’t care about online privacy, it’s best to opt for Mozilla Firefox, thanks to its set of pro-privacy features.

That’s not all; you can do a lot more to protect your online privacy. Among the options, an easy and quick one is to install privacy-focused add-ons in Mozilla Firefox. Since Firefox is one of the oldest browsers on the planet, it offers a plethora of add-ons — for every purpose!

That said, let’s check out the best privacy-centric add-ons you can install in Mozilla Firefox. Let’s dive in.

Ghostery

Ghostery is one of the best privacy-focused extensions with an intuitive user interface. What’s most interesting is, it uses an artificial intelligence engine to smartly block trackers and advertisements to help avoid issues on websites.

Enhanced anti-tracking of Ghostery

Ghostery offers Smart Blocking — a feature to optimize the performance of the webpages. Moreover, it maintains the page quality by intelligently blocking and unblocking non-secure or slow trackers, anonymizing your web history.

Ghostery shows just the required content and blocks everything else including online ads, thus decluttering the web pages. Also, it prevents trackers from gathering your information like your location, computer type, window size, browser, and your browsing habits, helping you browse the web safely!

Ghostery shows detailed information too

Blur

Blur — previously known as DoNotTrackMe — is a perfect browser extension for securing your data and online privacy. It limits the information you share with third-parties such as advertising companies and trackers, like Ghostery.

Blurs helps to mask your email address

Blur can mask email addresses to protect your online identities. What’s most interesting is, you can also mask credit cards and phone numbers (a premium feature, sadly), protecting you from online fraud and identity thefts.

Unlike Ghostery, Blur is also one of the best password managers, helping you to manage passwords. It can encrypt, save, and organize all your passwords to help you log in quickly and securely on the web as well as on iPhone and iPad.

Blur can mask debit or credit cards

Private Bookmarks

Private Bookmarks adds a missing feature to Mozilla Firefox. It enables a special password-protected bookmark folder that’s encrypted with your password. The private bookmark folder can be backed up, imported, and exported too.

You can hide web pages in this private folder from prying eyes. It encrypts the folder and hides it on your machine, making it invisible. One can only access it with your password.

Settings of Private Bookmarks in Firefox

Interestingly, Private Bookmarks can auto-lock your private bookmarks when you’re idle or not using a private browsing session. Also, it can auto-lock the private folder if you close the browser while the folder was left unlocked.

Multi-Account Containers

If you’d like to organize your online life and maintain privacy, Multi-Account Containers is a great solution. It helps create containers — an isolated group of your online identities and services.

In short, it allows running two identities side-by-side, say your official and personal accounts at the same time.

Create new container in Multi-Account Containers

Hence, you can stay logged into multiple accounts without using multiple browsers or constantly signing in and out of your accounts. What’s more interesting is, it helps isolate your accounts. So, if you search for “developer jobs” using your personal account, your work account services can’t track it.

Using Multi-Account Containers in Mozilla Firefox

Cookie Manager

Cookie Manager helps you to manage the cookies on any web page. It works in private mode and runs on Firefox Mobile as well. You can view all cookies, search cookies using a domain, path, or content.

Moreover, you can do a sort of actions on the cookies — add, edit, remove, whitelist, and import or export the cookies.

Cookie Manager for Mozilla Firefox

Cookies are text files that keep track of your online activities as well as your identities. So, Cookie Manager helps you to manage or remove cookies, allowing you to control web tracking.

It also recognizes cookies from default or private browsing sessions and container tabs and groups them into relevant jars.

That’s all about the privacy-focused add-ons for Mozilla Firefox. I suggest you get Ghostery — it blocks tracking-related technologies, hardening your online privacy. I also suggest installing Multi-Account Containers — an awesome add-on for ensuring isolation between multiple accounts of service (say Gmail).

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LogMeIn (LastPass) to be acquired by Private Equity Firms

LogMeIn announced yesterday that it will be acquired by Private Equity Firm for approximately $4.3 billion in an all-cash transaction. LogMeIn had a strong portfolio of applications and services for Home users at one point in time; some may still remember Hamachi, a Lan-over-Internet service, Cubby, a cloud file storage service, or LogMeIn Free, a free remote access product.

The company acquired the maker of the popular password management solution LastPass in 2015. Most consumer products are no longer available as LogMeIn started to focus on Enterprise markets.

LastPass is still a popular solution when it comes to password management but things have heated up in the space considerable. New commercial and free contenders are available and it is easier than ever to switch between services.

LogMeIn, Inc. (NASDAQ: LOGM), a leading provider of cloud-based connectivity, today announced that it has entered into a definitive agreement (or the “Agreement”) to be acquired in a transaction led by affiliates of Francisco Partners, a leading technology-focused global private equity firm, and including Evergreen Coast Capital Corporation (“Evergreen”), the private equity affiliate of Elliott Management Corporation (“Elliott”), for $86.05 per share in cash. The all-cash transaction values LogMeIn at an aggregate equity valuation of approximately $4.3 billion.

The transaction is expected to close in mid-2020 according to the press release and it is ” subject to customary closing conditions, including the receipt of stockholder and regulatory approvals”. The future owners plan to “accelerate growth and product investment organically and inorganically”.

What does it mean for LastPass customers?

lastpass password manager menu vault

The impact on LastPass is unknown at this point in time. It is quite possible that things stay the same or that major changes to the service will be announced. LastPass customers are advised to pay attention to announcements made by LogMeIn or the private equity firms once the deal passes to avoid that they are impacted by changes negatively.

Most password management solutions support the importing of LastPass data. If things go down south, LastPass customers could switch to a number of password management alternatives such as Bitwarden, Dashlane, 1Password, or, my personal favorite, KeePass.

Now You: What is your take on the press release?

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Private.sh Privacy Search Engine first look

Private.sh is a new search engine that was officially unveiled in November 2019. The search engine is maintained by Private Internet Access, a provider of VPN solutions and other tools, and Gigablast, a company that maintains an index of Internet pages.

Private.sh promises better privacy than other search solutions by encrypting searches on the user’s system and by using secure proxies to hide user IP addresses.

private sh search engine

The search term is encrypted automatically when users type search terms into the search field on the private.sh website and hit the search button. The request is then tunneled through a secure proxy maintained by Private Internet Access and submitted to Gigablast.

There, it is processed, encrypted using a temporary key, and send back the same way it came.

The announcement of the new service on the Private Internet Access website provides additional information on how this works:

When you enter a search term into Private.sh, the search term gets encrypted on the client side (on your computer or device) using GigaBlast’s public key, which only they can decrypt. In effect, this ensures that Private.sh never sees the search term.

After the search term is encrypted, it is passed to the GigaBlast search engine through a Private.sh proxy so GigaBlast doesn’t see your IP address, browser fingerprints, or anything that would allow for your privacy to be broken or a user profile to be created. This means that neither Private.sh or GigaBlast is able to build a user profile on you or store your search history.

Finally, the search results are encrypted by GigaBlast using your temporary public key and are returned to you through the Private.sh proxy. The results then get decrypted and rendered locally on your device using Javascript with a temporary private key that only exists on your device. This client-side keypair is changed for every search request.

The search engine itself provides a search field on the start page and options to filter by Web/News or by country. Not all countries are supported but several dozens are including the United States and other English speaking countries, France, Germany or Spain. Most Asian countries don’t seem to be supported though.

Results were returned quickly during tests regardless of query or filter.

private sh search results

The search engine shows a text banner for Private Internet Access in a sidebar but has no other ads or unwanted content. A quick check of the network connections shows that it only connects to its own domain plus the subdomain search.private.sh.

Results are quite okay considering that the company that operates the search engine and the index does not have the resources at its disposal that Google or Microsoft have.

Private.sh Browser Extensions

Today, browser extensions for Google Chrome (and other Chromium-based web browsers) and Firefox were released. These are available on the official add-on stores and as standalone versions that users may download from the site directly.

The extensions add another layer of security to the search experience according to the announcement:

Using Private.sh’s extension adds an additional layer of security to your Private Search experience. When visiting our website, the code used to encrypt your search term comes from the website even though it executes client side in your browser through Javascript. When using the Private.sh Google Chrome Extension or Firefox Add-On, all the code not only runs locally on your machine. Once the Private.sh extension code is on your machine, it is all but impossible to tamper with unless an attacker has read/write access to your computer.

Closing Words

Private.sh makes a good first impression. The search engine loads quickly, results are displayed fast thanks to the bare-bones nature of the search results page’s design, and results appear to be quite good as well (based on limited testing though). The promise that searches and user IPs are protected needs to be verified by a third-party though.

The search engine supports a limited number of countries and languages, and search options. It lacks media searching for one, and there are not any options to filter search results by time or extend the protection the proxy offers by letting users open results using it (like Startpage does).

All in all, not a bad start and certainly something that privacy-conscious users may want to keep an eye on.

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Microsoft releases Blocker Toolkit for Chromium-based Microsoft Edge browser

Microsoft revealed some time ago that it plans to release the first Stable version of the company’s new Chromium-based Microsoft Edge web browser on January 15, 2020 (a day after end of support for Windows 7).

The company revealed this week how it plans to bring the new web browser to user systems that run the Windows 10 operating system. According to the information provided on the Microsoft Docs website, Microsoft will deploy the Chromium-based Microsoft Edge web browser automatically via Windows Update for all systems running Windows 10 RS4 or newer. For those who don’t know, RS4 is Windows 10 version 1803.

The Blocker Toolkit is designed for organizations to block the automatic deployment of the Chromium-based browser. While designed for organizations, it may also be run on Home systems by administrators.

The toolkit prevents the installation of the Chromium-based Microsoft Edge web browser via Windows Update, but it won’t prevent the manual installation of the web browser.

microsoft edge chromium blocker toolkit

Administrators may download the Blocker Toolkit from the linked Microsoft Docs support page. The blocker is provided as an executable file that administrators need to run on target machines. The executable is a self-extracting archive that extracts four files to the specified folder.

The command file sets a key in the Registry that prevents the downloading and installation of the Chromium-based Microsoft Edge browser; there are also policy templates and a help file.

The command script may be run with parameters, e.g. to block Edge on remote computers.

The default syntax is: EdgeChromium_Blocker.cmd [] [/B] [/U] [/H]

  • B — Blocks the distribution.
  • U — Unblocks the distribution.
  • H — Displays the help.

All it takes to block the deployment is the following:

  1. Use Windows-R to open the run box on the system.
  2. Type regedit.exe and hit Enter to load the Registry Editor.
  3. Go to HKEY_LOCAL_MACHINESOFTWAREMicrosoftEdgeUpdate.
  4. Right-click on EdgeUpdate and select New > Dword (32-bit) value.
  5. Name it DoNotUpdateToEdgeWithChromium.
    • A value of 0 means that Edge is not blocked on the system.
    • A value of 1 means that the deployment via Windows Update is blocked.

The new policy is found under /Computer Configuration /Administrative Templates/Windows Components/Windows Update /Microsoft Edge (Chromium-based) Blockers If the Group Policy Administrative Template is imported.

Closing Words

It is likely that the new Edge will be included eventually in new versions of Windows 10 and that the option to block it won’t work anymore at that point in time. For now, it is possible to block the browser from being deployed automatically via Windows Update.  Administrators who have disabled Windows Updates or use other means of update deployment don’t need to do anything at this point. (Via Deskmodder)

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uTorrent is flagged as malicious by several antivirus engines currently

If you check the latest uTorrent setup file on Virustotal or other virus checking services, or run local checks using security solutions, you may notice that it is being flagged.

Both uTorrent Classic — the local version of uTorrent — and uTorrent Web — the new web-based solution — and BitTorrent are flagged by multiple antivirus solutions at the time of writing. The main release, uTorrent Classic, is detected by ten antivirus engines including Microsoft Defender, Sophos, Eset Nod32, GData, and Dr.Web.

Note: BitTorrent was sold in 2018.

Being flagged does not necessarily mean that a program is malicious or problematic; false positives happen but the likelihood is reduced when mainstream security solutions flag a program.

What is being detected? Most engines list “PUA or potentially unwanted application” as the reason and that indicates some sort of software bundling or file dropping on user systems. ESET lists Web Companion as a reference and that leads to Ad-Aware’s Web Companion application. Whether that program has been offered as part of uTorrent’s installation is unclear at this point.

utorrent optional offer

A test download and installation revealed the following:

  • uTorrent Classic downloaded fine in Microsoft Edge on Windows 10 with Windows Defender enabled. The program was not blocked from being downloaded.
  • The software installed fine on the same machine. Windows Defender did not prevent the installation.
  • It did include an offer to install the password manager Dashlane, but that offer was not checked.
  • It did include another offer, this time for WinZip and that checkbox was checked (and very tiny in comparison to the big next button).
  • There was also an add for NordVPN on the installation succeeded screen.

It is reasonable to assume that offers are switched at times, e.g. based on region, time or incentive to put them up.  The flagging of the executable file that is downloaded from the official website by Microsoft but the inactivity during download or installation is puzzling but only on first glance.

Windows Defender does not detect or block potentially unwanted programs by default. You need to enable the option first before it checks executable files for that. The security solution prevented the download of utorrent.exe after I enabled the option on the Windows 10 system. Other security solutions that flag the executable may block its download or execution automatically.

Users who have installed uTorrent may notice that the program is blocked from execution. The beta release is flagged by just two antivirus engines. One possible reason for that is that it does not include nearly as many offers as the release version.

Closing Words

Some users use legacy versions of uTorrent that don’t include offers, ads and other unwanted content. Others have moved on to solutions such as qBittorrent or Transmission. It is interesting to note that the previous owners announced in 2015 that they would move away from the bundled software offer model.

Now You: do you use a torrent client? (via GenBeta)

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Microsoft improves Tracking Prevention in the new Edge browser

Work on the new Chromium-based Edge continues as the first official Stable release will become available on January 15, 2020 (one day after end of support for Windows 7).

Microsoft implemented a tracking prevention system into the Edge browser that is powered by  Disconnect tracking protection lists.

Mozilla added a similar system to the organization’s Firefox browser and enabled it in mid-2019 by default.

Starting in Edge 79, that tracking prevention list is 25% more effective than previously thanks to implemented improvements.

Microsoft describes how it analyzed the tracking prevention effectiveness and experimented with improving the functionality. The company wanted to make sure that Edge was blocking more types of trackers without affecting web compatibility in a negative way.

Basically, what Microsoft did was enable new tracking protection categories in Edge to block more trackers. To avoid compatibility issues, Microsoft devised a system that relaxed tracking prevention based on engagement scores in balanced mode.

Balanced mode is one of the modes supported by Edge; it is an attempt to balance the blocking of trackers with maintaining compatibility on the Internet. Edge users may switch the blocking to strict mode which blocks trackers without taking engagement into account.

edge tracking prevention

Edge users may load edge://settings/privacy in the browser’s address bar to open the tracking prevention controls. There, it may be disabled entirely or switched between basic, balanced and strict modes.

Options to allow trackers on certain sites and to view all trackers that were blocked by Edge are available as well.

Tip: Microsoft added protection against potentially unwanted applications to the Edge browser recently as well.

The new tracking prevention balanced mode uses a site engagement score from the Chromium project to measure a user’s engagement with sites. The higher the score the higher is the engagement of the user with the site. The score increases when a user visits the site or interacts with it.

These scores are computed and kept on the user device according to Microsoft. Organizations that own multiple domains are grouped into a single entity when it comes to the computation of the score. If at least one of the domains reaches Microsoft’s threshold for engagement, tracking is relaxed on all of the organization’s sites.

Microsoft published a table on the official Microsoft Edge Dev blog that highlights tracking prevention changes in Edge 79. Basic mode has not changed but Balanced and Strict mode have. Both modes disallow storage access for content category sites now whereas that was not disallowed in Edge 78 and earlier versions.

Strict mode furthermore blocks storage access to sites from the advertising, social, and other categories, and it uses the engagement mitigations for compatibility purposes.

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NordVPN launches password management solution NordPass

VPN provider NordVPN launched its password management solution NordPass recently after a prolonged early access test.

The solution is available for iOS and Android, and the browsers Chrome, Firefox, Opera and Microsoft Edge at the time of writing. Browser extensions require a companion app, called NordPass Background App that needs to be downloaded and installed on desktop devices. You may only use the extensions on desktop devices if the background application is running.

A free version is available that is limited to a single device. Users who need access to their data on multiple devices need to upgrade their account to a paid plan. Paid plans start at $2.49 for a 2-year subscription.

NordVPN promises that “all encryption and decryption” happens on the user’s device. The service uses AES-256-GCM with Argon2 and zero-knowledge encryption. Any data that leaves the system is encrypted before it does so.

nordpass password manager

Users are asked to pick a master password during setup after they have entered their NordPass email address and verified the email. Access appears to be limited to NordPass customers at the time of writing or users who sign-up for a paid plan. A recovery code is displayed that may be used to recover access if the master password is lost.

Options to import passwords from various browsers and password management solutions is provided. NordPass supports imports from Chrome, Opera and Firefox, and numerous password managers such as KeePass, LastPass, 1Password, Dashlane, or BitWarden. Options to import data from CSV files are also available.

Customers may enable two-factor authentication in the account settings to add another layer of protection to the account; this is highly recommended for users of the service as a breach provides access to all saved passwords. NordPass’ two-factor authentication solution works with popular authentication apps like Authy, Google Authenticator or Duo Mobile.

The password manager displays icons next to login fields; activation displays available logins and options to select these to sign-in to the service in question.

nordpass login

The service does not indicate to the user if logins are available for the particular site; neither the icon in the browser’s address bar nor the icons in the password fields highlight that. You find out only after you click on the icon in the field.

Sign-ins are semi-automated. The service does not seem to support auto-logins into sites which means that you need to select an account manually and hit the log-in button each time you want to sign in. Some users prefer it that way because of added security, others will probably miss the auto-login option as it makes the process more convenient.

The service may be used to pick passwords for new accounts and password changes for existing accounts. Options to modify the parameters for generated passwords are not provided. New accounts and changes are picked up by the service automatically and are saved on user request.

Other features that NordPass supports:

  • NordPass users may save notes and credit card information as well using the service.
  • Password sharing.

Closing Words

If you look at NordPass and compare it to other password management solutions, you may come to the conclusion that the service is too expensive for what it offers. Even if you compare the free version, you may notice that it lacks in comparison to other applications.

My main gripes with the service are that it requires a background app if you use a browser extension, that it lacks critical settings, e.g. to change password generation parameters, and needs more polishing as well, e.g. an indicator that a login was found for the active site.

I can see this do well as part of a bundle with NordVPN but the service will have a hard time getting traction on its own because of the better, and often times cheaper, solutions that are out there.

Now You: What is your impression? Do you use a password management solution?

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Startpage launches News tab to help users escape filter bubbles

Search engine Startpage launched its new News offering on November 21, 2019. The new feature promises to deliver news to users that is not curated or personalized. In other words: every user who looks up the same term at the same time gets the same news returned when using Startpage News.

Note: Startpage ownership changed recently and that caused some controversy. Check out our coverage of the event here and here.

Google, Facebook, and other services that provide you with news may do so based on the information that they have accumulated about you. A very basic example would deliver news to you based on your location in the world. If you are from Australia, chance is high that you would like your news to cover Australia more than other parts of the world.

Curation or personalization goes beyond that simple example though. If you read conservative, liberal, or left-leaning media more than others, chance is that services may prioritize sources that fall into those categories over others that don’t. The same may be true in other areas, e.g. science, religion, sports, or other political areas.

The filter bubble may fortify believes and positions and while that is not bad all the time, it may mean that the information is biased to a certain degree.

Startpage users who run a search on the site may notice the new News tab on the results page. A click on News displays only news source as results.

startpage news

The system itself works similar to Google News and other news providers: type a search term to get a list of recent articles published by newspapers and online sites.

Startpage guarantees that users are not “targeted with select stories and opinions” when the News feature is used. The search engine removes “all personally identifiable information” from search queries before passing the search term to “the search engine” and returning “the exact same results that anyone else in the world would receive”.

Startpage does not mention the service that it uses to display news to users. I asked a company representative about it and was told that News is pulled from Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

Startpage displays a thumbnail, title, a short description, the source, and the time the news was published on the results page. A click on the news title opens the site the news was published on in new tab in the browser.

Startpage implemented its anonymous view mode on the News page so that users of the service may open the article using a proxy. Anonymous view hides the user’s IP address from the publication.

Closing words

Startpage expands its service and the inclusion of news is certainly a step in the right direction, especially since the service promises that users won’t be put in a filter bubble and the added ability to open news in anonymous mode.

Now you: do you use search engines to look up news?

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