Sunday, February 3, 2019

Life Without the 'Big 5' Tech Giants

Some time ago I posted the link to "Social Media Self-Defense."

I have not yet implemented the plan, but I do think about it often.

And it turns out, an operational defense plan for social media should be just a start. To be truly free in this day and age, you've got to unplug from all the biggies: Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.

Who does that? Probably no one, but Kash Hill is giving it a go. She's a warrior, dang!

See, "Life Without the Tech Giants," and "I Cut Google Out Of My Life. It Screwed Up Everything."

From the latter:

Long ago, Google made the mistake of adopting the motto, “Don’t be evil,” in a jab at competitors who exploited their users. Alphabet, Google’s parent company, has since demoted the phrase in its corporate code of conduct presumably because of how hard it is to live up to it.

Google is no stranger to scandals, but 2018 was a banner year. It covered up the potential data exposure of a half million people who probably forgot they were still using Google+. It got caught trying to build a censored search engine for China. Its own employees resigned to protest Google helping the Pentagon build artificial intelligence. Thousands more employees walked out over the company paying exorbitant exit packages to executives accused of sexual misconduct. And privacy critics decried Google’s insatiable appetite for data, from capturing location information in unexpected ways—a practice Google changed when exposed—to capturing credit card transactions—a practice Google has not changed and actually seems proud of.

I’m saying goodbye to all that this week. As part of an experiment to live without the tech giants, I’m cutting Google from my life both by abandoning its products and by preventing myself, technologically, from interacting with the company in any way. Engineer Dhruv Mehrotra built a virtual private network, or VPN, for me that prevents my phone, computers, and smart devices from communicating with the 8,699,648 IP addresses controlled by Google. This will cause some huge headaches for me: The company has created countless genuinely useful products, some that we use intentionally and some invisibly. The trade-off? Google tracks us everywhere.

I’m apprehensive about entirely blocking Google from my life because of how dependent I am on its products; the company has basically taken up residence in my brain somewhere near the hippocampus.

Google Calendar tells me what I need to do any given day. Google Chrome is how I browse the internet on my computer. I use Gmail for both work and personal email. I turn to Google for every question and search. Google Docs is the home of my story drafts, my half-finished zombie novel, and a running tally of my finances. I use Google Maps to get just about everywhere.

So I am shocked when cutting Google out of my life takes just a few painful hours. Because I’m blocking Google with Dhruv’s VPN, I have to find replacements for all the useful services Google provides and without which my life would largely cease to function:

I migrate my browser bookmarks over to Firefox (made by Mozilla).
I change the default search engine on Firefox and my iPhone from Google—a privilege for which Google reportedly pays Apple up to $9 billion per year—to privacy-respecting DuckDuckGo, a search engine that also makes money off ads but doesn’t keep track of users’ searches.
I download Apple Maps and the Mapquest app to my phone. I hear Apple Maps is better than it used to be, and damn, Mapquest still lives! I don’t think I’ve used that since the 90s/a.k.a. the pre-smartphone age, back when I had to print directions for use in my car.
I switch to Apple’s calendar app.
I create new email addresses on Protonmail and (for work and personal email, respectively) and direct people to them via autoreplies in Gmail. Lifehack: The easiest way to get to inbox zero is to start a brand new inbox.
Going off Google doesn’t come naturally. In addition to mentally kicking myself every time I talk about “Googling” something, I have to make a “banned apps” folder on my iPhone, because otherwise, my fingers keep straying out of habit to Gmail, Google Maps, and Google Calendar—the three apps that, along with Instagram and Words With Friends, are in heaviest rotation in my life.

There’s no way I can delete my Gmail accounts completely as I did with Facebook. First off, it would be a huge security mistake; freeing up my email address for someone else to claim is just asking to be hacked. (Update: While other companies recycle email addresses, many Googlers have informed me since this piece came out that Google does not.) Secondly, I have too many documents, conversations, and contacts stored there. The infinite space offered by the tech giants has made us all digital hoarders.

And that hoarding can be a bonanza for tech giants, allowing Google, for example, to create a “Smart Reply” feature that crawls billions of emails on Gmail to predict how you’d like to respond to a friend’s missive. Yay?

This experiment is not just about boycotting Google products. I’m also preventing my devices from interacting with Google in invisible or background ways, and that makes for some big challenges.

One morning, I have a meeting downtown. I leave my apartment with enough time to get there via Uber, but when I open the app, it won’t work. Same thing with Lyft. It turns out they’re both dependent on Google Maps such that I can’t even enter my destination while blocking Google. I’m astounded. There are no taxis around, so I have to take the bus. I wind up late to the meeting.

Google is a behemoth when it comes to maps. According to various surveys, the vast majority of consumers—up to 77 percent—use Google Maps to navigate the world. And a vast majority of companies rely on Google Maps’ API to power the mapping on their websites and apps, according to data from iDataLabs, Stackshare, and BuiltWith.

Even Google’s mortal enemy, Yelp, uses it for mapping on its website (though it taps Apple maps for its iPhone app). Luther Lowe, head of policy and Google critic-in-chief at Yelp, says there aren’t great alternatives to Google when it comes to mapping, forcing the company to pay its foe for the service.

In its Maps API, Google has long offered a free or very cheap product, allowing it to achieve market dominance. Now it’s making a classic monopolistic move: Google announced last year that it’s raising its mapping prices significantly, leading developers across the web to freak out because Google Maps is “light years ahead of its competitors.”

I become intimately acquainted with Google Maps competitors’ drawbacks using Mapquest for navigation; it keeps steering me into terrible traffic during my commute (probably because it doesn’t have the real-time movements of millions of people being sent to it).

Google, like Amazon, is woven deeply into the infrastructure of online services and other companies’ offerings, which is frustrating to all the connected devices in my house.

“Your smart home pings Google at the same time every hour in order to determine whether or not it’s connected to the internet,” Dhruv tells me. “Which is funny to me because these devices’ engineers decided to determine connectivity to the entire internet based on the uptime of a single company. It’s a good metaphor for how far the internet has strayed from its original promise to decentralize control.”

In some cases, the Google block means apps won’t work at all, like Lyft and Uber, or Spotify, whose music is hosted in Google Cloud. The more frequent effect of the Google block though is that the internet itself slows down dramatically for me...
Keep reading.

If you could create a social media defense anonymous identity, I suspect you could continue to use the Big Five relatively safely (anonymously), although you'd still be handing over all your data, which is valuable whether you're identified or not.

What a crazy world we live in!