I was an early Google user. I remember back in the late 90s, the horrors of searching the web pre-Google were many, and Google's arrival on the search scene was like giving sight to a blind man. I was "late" creating my Gmail account, waiting until summer 2004 to snatch that up, but since then I've gaily absorbed Google's bloating presence in my life like a cancer that also gives you super-powers.
And Google's services have always been "free" [insert your favorite mockery of internet "free" here], so the price is right, but they didn't build all that business out of the goodness of their heart. So over the past year, as the public has been increasingly privy to what exactly Google's heart looks like, Google's mountain of free web tools is looking less like Emerald City and more like the Las Vegas strip – a shiny pile of bling made from things that used to be mine.
So let's get into it.
I already did this – a few weeks ago I switched everything to Firefox. I installed the Firefox plugins uBlock Origin and Privacy Possum, which looked like a good combination after the 15 minutes of research I did before getting bored. There are a lot of privacy plugins available for Firefox, but these two seem the most adept.
Beware, Firefox's default settings still send a lot of data to Google (such as every page you visit) so it takes a little bit more tweaking of Firefox preferences to de-Google my browsing, but it's straightforward and doesn't break any behavior I care about.
On Mobile, considering that I'm an
Apple shill iPhone user, I've been using Safari over Chrome since always.
Every day I use Google Maps, and I have been since it was released. On mobile, where I use maps for directions, the Google Maps app has been growing features that frustrate, and Apple Maps has been improving, so switching over to Apple Maps is easy. I've tried Waze – but don't care for it, and it uses Google Maps data anyway – and the Open Street Maps app – but that community has a long way to come before their tool is useful for anything beyond research.
On the computer, where I use maps for "research" (I just love looking at maps, ok, I admit it), Google Maps does bring back fond memories. But while it once was king only because it didn't have shit all over it, in 2018 there is now real competition. Open Street Maps in the browser is much better than their app. Even though their intended audience is API users and not you and I (with the result that their tools lack some polish), Open Street Maps actually has more data available than Google Maps in some regards, which is not just impressive, but fuel for the map nerd in me. The hardest part of switching from Google Maps will be retraining my instinct to go directly to Google for mapping.
Search will be hard to give up. It's not that I have no complaints about Search – I have plenty, but they all boil down to Google trying to outsmart my search query and show me something other than web results. I'm old fashioned, and still think of Search as a tool to search the web, whereas Google seems to consider it an answer engine, like Wolfram Alpha if it worked.
So my complaints are great and all, but the reason Search will be difficult to abandon is that, just like how "Googling" snuck it's way into language, Google searching for things has snuck its way into my reflexes. When I need air, I breathe. When I'm thirsty, I drink. When I want to know something, I Google. That sounds like an ad for Google, but it's a problem. I don't like the idea that my wellness is dependent on the internet services of some company. That sounds like, if not an addiction, at least an unhealthy relationship.
There is one straightforward way to start breaking the habit: I have set the default search in my browsers to something else (DuckDuckGo – wow, they picked a crappy name for their product.)
When it was released, Gmail was amazing. It completely redefined the landscape of email, giving us a web-based email client that was clean and worked well, had (nearly) unlimited storage, and amazing spam filtering. Gmail's continuing evolution has had its hits and misses, but it's still a great product. But, a product that by now knows literally everything about me. Everything I've bought, every event I've attended, everyone I've ever met, every organization I've joined, it's all gone through Gmail, and therefore Google knows it. Even products I use that have nothing to do with Google insist on sending me billions of garbage emails, such as my fitness tracker, my banks, my HOA, every store I've ever shopped at – literally my entire life is conducted over email, and I give Google full access to it. Writing it out like this, I sound like an idiot, trusting a faceless advertising agency with my entire life.
I have a thought for what to do; it's not fully formed, and it's a way from being implemented, but here it is. I already own this vanity domain which is pointed at this server, which is entirely mine. I think I will set up mail services on this machine, accepting as a valid address any and every local part. Then all emails get recorded into one mailbox, with each email put into a folder of the name of the to address. Then I can write a custom web front end to do basic management of the messages, and use IMAP to connect to the mailbox from my phone. This will allow me literally unlimited and effortless new email addresses, so I can have each service I sign up for (such as Amazon, or my bank) use its own unique address to reach me. Blocking spam then becomes blackhole-ing specific local parts, which will probably get 99% ironed out within two weeks.
This idea is still rough, and means that this server's reliability in my life goes from "really important" to "extremely important", but I haven't yet thought of any other downsides. There's still work to do before that becomes reality, but so far, I like it.
I use Google Calendar to remind myself to do things (via notifications), to coordinate schedules with my family (via sharing), and to subscribe (via iCal) to calendars hosted by organizations. The notifications and subscription systems will be trivial to replace – the Apple Calendars app can easily do both. It might even be able to do the sharing, if I can convince my family to also change how they work, which is the real challenge here. I just checked, and also Apple Calendar is exposed to the web through iCloud.com, which is promising. I've been a Google Calendars user for so long I don't even know what's out there. I think Calendars are de-Google-able, but more research is needed to be certain.
I use Google Drive to backup my laptop. Drive does a terrible job of this, hogging bandwidth, backing up over inappropriate connections, and interfering with database files on disk (such as my iTunes library file, or Lightroom catalog file). Moving from Drive to a serious backup solution will be easy.
But the Docs and Sheets part of Google Drive will be harder to replace. The competitor's tools will need to do collaboration and versioning as well as Google to be worthwhile; these are the Docs and Sheets' advantages over the old Microsoft Office setup, and they are killer advantages that I'm not going to give up.
My goal here isn't to totally eradicate Google from my life and delete my account – that's extreme and unnecessary. My goal is to be able to browse the web without being logged in to Google. Chrome's new version that conflates logging into Chrome and Google drove home a realization that Google really wants to be involved in my every action. Google wants me to use the web inside their own little sandbox, so that they can sell access to that sandbox to other companies. My intention through all this is to be able to choose when and where I play in Google's sandbox – to not be trapped inside like a prisoner, but also to not deny myself the utility of Google's services when they suit my needs.
At the same time, I need to be wary of simply jumping from the frying pan and into the fire – in leaving Google behind I cannot be moving my entire life yet another sole provider. I do not do this in any other aspect of my life, and continuing to do it online is irresponsible. I cannot save the world from Google, but I can save myself.