Getting Rid of Google - 2019 Edition
Back in 2013 Google held all the cards in my digital life. They had all my emails, web searches, phone calls, texts, directions to every new place I went, calendar events, most of the documents I worked on, and many of the websites I visited.
It’s now 2019. Google still rules a large swath of the internet. But they have much less power over my online experience and they are making much less money from me.
I feel morally obligated to be part of the current privacy crusade. In 2013 I decided to make a commitment to cut Google out of my life. I was inspired by the Snowden revelations and Steven Frank’s project to take back his own personal data from cloud services. But at the time it seemed like an impossible task. Some services had easy alternatives, but others had nothing of similar quality or price.
In this post I want to review all the Google services I was using then and see what I have replaced them with today. I also want to evaluate who owns my data today and what, if any, further actions I should be taking to protect my privacy.
Getting off Gmail is hard and easy at the same time. There are hundreds of decent mail providers out there, and picking a good one is not hard - if you are willing to fork over a few dollars a month. This was a hard commitment to make when I was in college, but I don’t regret it.
I switched to the privacy conscious and non-US based KolabNow (RIP Lavabit). I also changed my email address to use my own domain name, which gives me an address that will last a lifetime and allows me to switch hosts whenever I want.
Some of my friends and relatives still use my old address, so I have to keep it around. That and most email providers want a backup email for account recovery. So the old Gmail address sticks around, but there is a very low volume of mail coming through. Of course Google still has most of my emails, but I’m doing as much as I can to fight it.
- TODO: Consider deleting the Gmail account altogether and paying for (or self-hosting?) a second email for account recovery purposes.
- Replaced with: KolabNow
- Data visible to: KolabNow
Back in 2010 instant messages were still a very important medium for me. Now if I need to chat with someone I usually end up using iMessage/SMS for personal conversations and Slack for work. iMessage is supposedly end-to-end encrypted, but SMSs aren’t very private at all. I’ve used several other types of chat software over the years like IRC, Signal, Matrix, Keybase, etc., but the problem with picking a chat platform is that popularity is usually the deciding factor.
- TODO: I should use Signal more.
- Replaced with: iMessage, SMS, Slack
- Data visible to: Verizon/everyone on SS7, Slack, maybe Apple
There’s a reason Google is a verb, and that reason is Search. I use Duck Duck Go as the default search engine on all my devices these days, but for many queries I have to use the
!g command to forward my question to Google. Duck Duck Go just doesn’t understand what I am asking for, especially when I’m searching for programming questions.
Maybe there are search engines that give Google’s results but do more to obfuscate my identity. Or maybe there are better websites than Duck Duck Go. I haven’t looked. I should.
- TODO: Investigate other search engines.
- Replaced with: Duck Duck Go
- Data visible to: Duck Duck Go, Google
Google Voice had one killer feature for me: the ability to send and receive SMS messages from my laptop. iMessage gained this feature in 2014 which made it easy to get rid of. I’ve already discussed iMessage and Signal above.
- Replaced with: SMS, iMessage
- Data visible to: Verizon/Everyone on SS7, maybe Apple
Google Maps was one of the hardest products to replace in 2013. MapQuest had fallen behind and Apple Maps and OpenStreetMap hadn’t taken off yet.
These days I use Apple Maps. Exchanging Google for Apple is a small win but not ideal. The only privacy-respecting alternative I know of is OpenStreetMap, which I have tried very hard to use. But it just doesn’t cut it. Given a phone, a navigation app, and the name of a destination I often can’t get directions with OpenStreetMap in under a minute. Trying to convert a destination’s name to a longitude/latitude is really hard and not always possible.
- TODO: I will try OpenStreetMap again in the future, and maybe try some of the closed-source navigation apps I have spurned so far.
- Replaced with: Apple Maps
- Data visible to: Apple
Just kidding. Nobody used Google Plus.
Today I use iCloud to sync my calendars between devices. I think KolabNow, who already hosts my email, hosts calendars as well but I’ve never tried it. I should. Or maybe I should self-host.
- TODO: Switch calendar/contact hosting to KolabNow or my own server.
- Replaced with: iCloud Calendar
- Data visible to: maybe Apple
Google Docs was the only document editor with really good concurrent editing support in 2010. Today that’s not the case and without a school assigning group projects I don’t have nearly as much need for it. When I do I usually use hack.md or Etherpad. I tried to self-host hack.md but I couldn’t figure out the administration part of it. Although both are open-source I should still host one of them myself.
- TODO: Self-host a real-time document editor.
- Replaced with: hack.md, Etherpad
- Data visible to: hack.md, Etherpad host
RSS used to be my “social media” where I got my news, followed friends, and learned more about what I’m interested in. But as Twitter, Facebook, and other networks grew I stopped using RSS as much. When Google Reader shut down it wasn’t a big deal for me. Today I use NewsBlur which is hosted by someone else but is open source. I’m pretty happy with it. I may try to self-host it someday.
- Replaced with: NewsBlur
- Data visible to: NewsBlur
I don’t usually think of myself as a “user” of Google Ads when I see them. But Google Ads are the reason all of these other services exist. I use an ad blocker because of the state of online tracking today. I know that denying Google and other sites revenue while I continue to use their services is unfair. But being tracked by ads these days happens across websites, whether you are using the companies services or not. This tracking is done without permission and without many users knowledge, and it is unethical and dangerous. So I use uBlock Origin on desktop and Purify on iOS. I’m also planning to set up a Pi-hole at home when I get a chance.
- Replaced with: Nothing
- Data visible to: No one
YouTube has a stranglehold on the online video world and it is where I consume most video content today. PeerTube looks promising but doesn’t have the content that I want to watch. Unlike most of the other Google services I have gotten rid of there is no alternative way to consume the same content. Maybe the best I can do right now is to donate a couple bucks a month to PeerTube.
- TODO: Donate to PeerTube
- Replaced with: N/A
- Data visible to: Google