Earlier this year I killed off my 12 year old Google account which I initially opened back in 2008 while I was in college. This was a year long process of downloading my data from Google, updating my email address with current services, and finding solutions to replace existing Google products I used frequently. The process of pulling my data from Google was an excruciating process and I’ve identified specific tools and services I have since switched to below.
I considered myself to be a Google power user (others might call me a “fan boy”) and used almost exclusively Google products for email, productivity, and entertainment. Gmail, Google Drive (which contained all of my personal files), Calendar, Keep, Google Photos (which stored and was the only backup of all of my digital photos dating back to 2000), Google Play Music (which I stored my entire music collection), Google Wallet/Google Pay, Blogger for blogging, Play Books for reading eBooks, Hangouts for chatting, Google Voice as my primary phone number, and not to mention the purchases I had made of all the products, services, and applications (which comes out to at least a few thousand dollars over the course of a decade). I owned the Galaxy Nexus, Nexus 5, Nexus 6, Nexus 7, Nexus 9, Chromecast, Nvidia Shield (Android TV), Pixel XL, the Pixel 2 XL, a Chromebook – I was even a part of ChromeOS pilot program before an official launch and was gifted an unbranded CR-48 directly from Google (which was actually pretty cool). Now I’d like to go into all of the worries, concerns, and frustrations that shifted my view of Google services and decision to make the change.
Single Point of Failure
As mentioned above, almost every aspect of my digital life was tied to my Google account somehow. It wasn’t until reading a couple horror stories from people similar to me who had lost access to their account that I started to reconsider my relationship with Google. I wondered what would happen if I had my account were suspended for any reason – I would be completely locked out of almost every aspect of my digital life. Additionally, I became more conscious of digital privacy and security issues. The possibility of having my account compromised in some way would be catastrophic as I also used it to store sensitive tax and financial information.
Currently, I have my online “identity” mostly offline – the online services I do use are compartmentalized across multiple services (such as using Protonmail for email and Signal for messaging, with nothing too sensitive stored online). This way if I happen to lose access to one service, it will not effect access to the others. I’ve resorted to using more localized services (for example I’ve returned to listening to my own local music library rather than relying on a streaming service such as Play Music or Spotify).
A History of Killing Products/Services
Having a service you use frequently be shut down is frustrating, but let’s not forget that Google is a company who’s sole mission is to generate revenue. If it doesn’t generate revenue for the company, it will be nixed. You can’t blame a company for doing this (it’s Capitalism 101 after all), but from a user’s perspective it’s important to be aware that if the product isn’t generating profit for the company, it will eventually be killed off since it can’t be monetized and you will thus be forced to find an alternative. Unfortunately, this even means killing services that are popular and users don’t have a say in the matter. Google strategy seems to consist of creating several new services to see what sticks and if it doesn’t then the project dies. There’s even a website dedicated to the services killed by Google.
Google Daydream, Google Hangouts, Google+, Google Music, Google Reader and iGoogle are just some of the services I used that were inventively killed off. In retrospect these services were complete garbage compared to more open and freely available alternatives. I’m glad they were killed off otherwise I would have never discovered a better RSS reader.
Of course buying an Android device essentially means buying into the Google ecosystem and I want to point out that they’re not the only company that routinely kills projects. In fact I’ve purchased quite a few games and applications through the Google Play Store only to discover later that the developer either pulled the application without any notice or reason, or that the app is no longer supported on my device (in one instance, a game I purchased was deprecated a few months later only to be re-released and therefore forcing me to purchase it once again). I’ve even paid for a game only to have the developer make it free with ads (which means the version I have installed now has ads). It’s the user that has to eat the cost and it’s ultimately Google that allows this type of behavior. But I digress.
I had to ask myself why would I invest time and money into products and services that will in all likelihood be terminated a year or two down the road?
The Privacy Implications
Google is an
internet advertising company first and foremost and the amount data they collect on each and every user is staggering. It’s common knowledge at this point, but the average person doesn’t seem to care much about the implications. Within your Google account settings you can see what information they collect about (and occasionally the ability to turn off specific data collection), but this is simply the personal data they collect that they’ve decided to show you and to give you the illusion of control of your data.
Surveillance capitalism is a term coined by Shoshana Zuboff. The term is described as an economic system centered around the commodification of personal data for the core purpose of profit making. Advertising companies such as Google use this personal data to target consumers more precisely than ever before, but the amount of data they have on any given person can result in levels of manipulation not seen in traditional print and TV marketing.
Being Independent & Owning My Own Data
I’m not completely “independent” in the sense I build my own software tools. I haven’t created my own instant messaging service nor do I have my own email server. The few online services I do rely on are privacy-centric, transparent about how their service works, and what data they collect if any. For the remaining tools, I’ve switched to offline solutions. I believe keeping data offline and compartmentalizing online data is critical to keeping personal data secure. Some might see this as inconvenient, but that is the price you have to pay for security, privacy, and reliability.
Instead of using Google’s blogging platform “Blogger” I now have my own domain with a WordPress site. Am I in complete control? No, but I have much more control than I did and significantly more independent from a single company that I previously was. Owning my own domain also means that if my email provider (in this case Protonmail) or my web host ever decide to lock me out of my email account or shut down my site (both very unlikely events), I can very easily switch to another email provider and keep my same email address and website URL.
Instead of Chrome, I use Firefox (with the exception of a Chromium based browser called Brave for work). Instead of Google Docs, I use Libre Office. Instead of Android, I use a degoogled version called LineageOS. Also, DuckDuckGo is actually a very functional search engine (in some ways better with their !bang feature).
My personal data including my music, documents, eBooks, movies, shows, etc are all saved locally on my computer and backed up to an external drive, along with an off sight in case my apartment burns down. I don’t ever have to worry about my account being hacked, the service being compromised or abusing my data, or the service simply locking me out of my account without any explanation.
What I Still Use
After exporting all my files, photos, music, and email, and was certain I no longer needed it, I deleted my Google account. I do however still use a few Google services such as Google Voice, YouTube, and occasionally Google Maps.
With Google Voice I transferred my number to a fresh Google account I just use for the sole purpose of forwarding calls/texts to my main number. This number is used exclusively for the purpose of providing a company I’m dealing with requires a phone number (and surprise, almost all the spam calls I receive go to that number).
When using YouTube I usually used a front-end called Invidious but still occasionally use the native site with adblock and a Firefox container. Otherwise I get my YouTube content from my RSS reader
newsboat and use
youtube-dl to view the video content locally.
And finally Maps – I sometimes use the desktop version of Google maps occasionally (again inside a container). Open Street Maps is great and all, but it just does not work as well as Google Maps in terms of finding what I’m looking for. On my phone, however I exclusively use OsmAnd~ from F-Droid.
After reading this someone might think I’ve overdosed on too many Richard Stallman memes or I’ve gone to the extreme. Google isn’t perfect and there’s a happy medium – why throw the baby out with the bathwater? That’s fair, though I believe not having a Google account and using minimal services is the happy medium. Living a digital life without Google is entirely possible and very doable if you ease into transitioning to alternatives. As I said, it took the better part of a year – mostly because I needed to update all my accounts associated with that Gmail account, but also the tedious task of exporting my content. Not only are the tools I use now more reliable, they are infinitely more privacy focused and overall more secure. I have much more control over my data, my privacy, and my security and that gives me peace of mind.