Everyone knows Google is big.
And they have great products.
They can afford the software developers to make these great products because they earn a lot of money collecting and selling their users’ data.
In 2020, they netted about $13 billion in profit and hired nearly 20,000 employees. Really good in a “pandemic.”
Source: 2020 Alphabet Earnings Release. “Alphabet Announces Fourth Quarter and Fiscal Year 2020 Results”, 02/02/2021
Out of all searches done on the Internet, 90% of them will use the Google search engine and 63% of those searches will be from the Google Chrome browser. Android is the most-used operating system, easily beating out Microsoft Windows for the top spot.
Over 2 billion people a month used Google’s Workspace in 2020, including 5 million businesses using their paid service. Microsoft Office may still lead productivity at the office, but it is losing ground fast.
Today, many Americans now filter most of their digital lives through the 200+ companies owned by Google and Alphabet. Here are a few examples:
– Their physical connection to the Internet and phone system (Pixel phone / Chromebook / tablet)
– How they interface with their devices (Pixel phones, Chromebooks, tablets)
– How they interact with the Internet (Chrome browser)
– Where they get apps, movies, shows, music, books (Google Play Store)
– How they find content on the Internet (Google search engine)
– Their email, documents, photos, contacts… (Google Workspace)
– Their music videos, entertainment, kids’ content, education (YouTube)
– Google Maps, Google Translate, Google Home Hub
And a whole lot more
Google is collecting data from you at virtually every datapoint.
They know everything about you. The data collected from you is linked to the unique “fingerprint” of your Internet browser. This valuable information is sold to data miners, researchers, and advertisers, then handed over to authorities at request.
Google trades in filtered and processed data. Raw data is their raw material. You, the user, produce that raw material when you use their products. Their products are designed to harvest that raw material on continual basis. That’s why most of Google’s products are free to you, the user. Your data is a renewable resource; nothing more than recycled bits of ephemera of the human experience which, otherwise, would simply turn into memories.
Google’s bots scrape over EVERYTHING and index all content. Your email content, the files on your Google Drive, the metadata on your photos. Even your voice is recorded and stored on Google’s servers. The location of your cell phone is constantly tracked by your provider for service reasons. It is also tracked by Google, mapping everywhere you go, your routes, the times when you travel, the times when you’re stationary, the speed of travel. They also track telemetry – how your phone is moving at any given time at the stationary location, is it tilted up/down/left/right, is it in your pocket, is it in your hand by your ear, is it in your hand in front of your face, etc.
They use this knowledge to sell ads to other companies who want to target specific markets for their products. They control what your Internet world looks like, creating a “bubble” around you. They have the power to restrict your influence in the Internet world buy reducing the people who can see your content and there’s nothing you can do about it. If they decide your content is unacceptable, they can remove you from their platform, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
And this data never goes away. You can request deletion, but with all of this collection, you can never be certain they did it. They are not the only ones doing this, but they are the largest. Google is a data monopoly. And you freely give them all the data they want from you to sell to their advertisers.
America is still a free market, though, and there are many choices available for people who are tired of Google.
Initially, the desire to get away from Google can be overwhelming. Some want to toss their phones in the lake, but it is easier and more effective to take a gradual approach. One important note – privacy is the goal, not anonymity. Anonymity on the World Wide Web is a difficult task and beyond the scope of this article.
The easiest things to change are the browser and search engine. A common practical setup is to use the Firefox browser with the DuckDuckGo search engine. GNU IceCat has been previously recommended on our blog here, which is derived from Firefox, excluding Mozilla components. Since Chrome is based on open-source Chromium, some people use Chromium. There are other browsers based on Chromium, too, such as Brave and Microsoft Edge. You can do a little research and find more security/privacy focused browsers that are derivatives of both Firefox and Chromium.
A few websites such as banks, sites using physical access cards or dongles to login, or sites with critical security or communication requirements might need special exceptions to properly load. This may require some experimentation with different browsers and/or security settings. Some people use one browser for certain functions, like checking government email at home, and use another browser for most other work. Learn about settings and extensions or add-ons to make browsers more secure and restrict the amount of data collected. There are tools available to analyze your browser’s fingerprint, such as AmIUnique.org and Cover Your Tracks.
Try out other search engines, too, such as Qwant and metaGer. Even Bing and Yahoo can expand your bubble. Comparing search results can be surprising. Google’s search engine has been criticized for doing more than just keeping you in a bubble of your own preferences and geographical location. Google also shows results to try and shape users’ opinions on political and social issues, and even suppress news stories. Searching “black lives” on Google results in a full page of positive content about the “Black Lives Matter” group and movement. The same search on metaGer brings a more balanced page of content.
For more of a challenge, start changing how you get your work done on the Internet. Zoho mail is a great replacement for Gmail for personal or business. It’s free and can use your own domain, if you have one. They have a full office suite of apps for team collaboration available a la cart, so you can get what you need. Some of the apps need a subscription, though. When signing up for the email, you can chose Business or Personal. They tailor services to especially to small business customers.
Microsoft has a paid cloud-based solution in Office365. Before you jump ship to them, remember it was Microsoft who was the original tech monopoly. In 1999, the Department of Justice issued them a stunning defeat, forcing major changes to the company. Exercise your due diligence before embracing them over Google’s practices.
Another cloud-based solution comes from a company called cloudamo. They are a partner with NextCloud, which is free software that has a cloud drive, contacts, calendar and more. They put that together with OnlyOffice, an open-source, cloud-based office suite similar to Office365. Their subscription plans start at $36/year. No email service is included in this deal, though.
ProtonMail or Tutanota are focused on secure email. They can send and receive encrypted email as well as regular email. Setup a free account with either of them and enjoy more privacy and better security than Gmail. Also comes with calendar and contacts.
Next, change your desktop office suite.
If you have a PC (Windows/Mac/Linux) you can install LibreOffice for no cost. It covers all of the major productivity apps. This is great if you don’t need office documents on a cell phone. They have installations available for Windows, Mac, or Linux.
Self-Hosting your own complete Google Workspace replacement.
A more advanced solution, but one you can control completely, is self-hosting. To do this in the cloud, you’ll need your own domain, a virtual private server (VPS) for email and NextCloud (about $6/month through DigitalOcean), and a VPS for OnlyOffice (about $48/mo through DigitalOcean). DigitalOcean is just an example; there are lots of VPS providers looking for your business. The cost for the OnlyOffice VPS is higher because it needs at least 8GB RAM to handle the office documents in the cloud. Setup the first VPS with open source software called “Mail-in-a-box” (MIAB) is very easy to setup, does a good job of security, makes administration easy, and comes complete with a basic version of NextCloud. Setup the second VPS for OnlyOffice, then tell NextCloud where to find it to integrate the office apps. The great thing about doing your own setup is you can have as many users as you want (or your VPS can handle) and you control your own data. Just remember that you are the administrator in this setup. MIAB forums are a great help.