Goodbye Big Five
Reporter Kashmir Hill spent six weeks blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from getting her money, data, and attention, using a custom-built VPN. Here’s what happened.
Week 3: Google
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 Riseup.net (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.
Most of the websites I visit have frustratingly long load times because so many of them rely on resources from Google and get confused when my computer won’t let them talk to the company’s servers. On Airbnb, photos won’t load. New York Times articles won’t appear until the site has tried (and failed) to load Google Analytics, Google Pay, Google News, Google ads, and a Doubleclick tracker.
As I sit staring at my screen and drumming my fingers, I get flashbacks to computing via dial-up in the ’90s, when I used to read a book while waiting for websites to open. It’s amazing to see how often sites are trying to serve trackers, ads, and analytics from Google before their own content.
Mere hours into the first day of the Google block, my devices have tried to reach Google’s servers more often than the 15,000 times they tried to ping Facebook’s the entire week before. By the end of the week, my devices have tried to communicate with Google’s servers over 100,000 times, comparable to Amazon, at 293,000 times during its block. Most of Google’s pings seem to be in the form of trackers, ads, and resources built into websites.
Many of the sites I visit want to load Google fonts —a free, open-source resource the company released in 2010 —which are downloaded from Google’s servers and then cached in the browser. Having quick access to a variety of fonts that would not otherwise be available on your computer generally helps sites load faster , but it has the opposite effect for me during the block.
Given that Google has so many ways to track people’s digital activity already, I’m disturbed to see how ubiquitous the use of Google fonts is on the web, but the company has promised that it won’t use them to track a site’s users . So there’s that.
“Of all the shady shit Google does, this one doesn’t seem that shady,” says Dhruv, when I consult him about it.
To their credit, the tech giants have helped create a faster, more efficient internet infrastructure; unfortunately, it’s one that’s littered with their trackers and ads. My blocker is a crude beast, throwing the proverbial baby out with the privacy-invasive bath water.
“I’m extremely worried about Google’s surveillance,” says Sean O’Brien, a lecturer in law at Yale Law School who founded the Yale Privacy Lab, by phone.
And not just any phone. O’Brien has an “Android phone with no Google on it.” Google bought Android in 2007 in “ the best deal ever ,” and then started insisting that phone companies that used the operating system, which is about 80 percent of the market, bundle Google apps and make them the default options. That little directive led European regulators to hit the company with a $5 billion fine last summer in an antitrust ruling that now has Google charging a licensing fee for apps and services that most phone makers have become dependent on.
To de-Google his Android, O’Brien had to install a custom operating system . “The irony is that the phones it’s easiest to do this on are the Google developer phones: the Nexus and the Pixel lines,” O’Brien says. So the operating system is Google-free, but the phone is made by Google.
(Damn. That means this isn’t a smartphone option for me during the last week of the experiment when I plan to block all five big tech companies at once.)
O’Brien says he’s worried in general about all of our technology being used to surveil us in every aspect of our life, but that he’s most worried about Google.
“Google’s the biggest threat in sheer size and the amount of data they have. And they’re really good at crunching that data,” he says. “If you can get out of Google’s messed-up ecosystem, do it, but otherwise try to use only one or two apps. Even me as an activist on these issues, a privacy maximalist, I can’t completely cut myself off.”
I had cut myself off completely from Google, but it’s making my job really hard. The invisible hands of Google are everywhere: I’m locked out of the system we use here at Gizmodo to publish blogs because I have historically used Google as my log-in. I also discover I can’t use Dropbox to send selfie-videos about the blockade to my video producer, Myra Iqbal.
I am trying to do research for a story that will take me to South Africa and need to see street-level views of buildings there. I realize I don’t know how else to do that without Google Maps’ Street View, so the research has to wait. Google has so thoroughly mapped the world that I feel partially blind without it. Damn you, Google. You’ve given us some really useful products over the years, even if they weren’t welcomed by everyone .
If I stick with this, it will be a more costly way to live. While everything I use this week is free, some services won’t be if I become a heavy user. Protonmail charges after 500 MB of data; I’ve got 14 times that in my free, personal Gmail alone. Making the switch to decentralized, privacy-focused companies means you might actually have to pay for a service because they’re not necessarily monetizing your data.
A bigger drawback is that Google is really damn good at a lot of the things it does, and I miss those things. For example, DuckDuckGo works for my internet search needs but isn’t quite as spot-on as Google Search. And yes, it’s privacy-invasive that Google is mining all our data all the time, but I love that when I get an email about a flight, Gmail automatically tells Google Calendar to pencil it in. Is that worth the trade-off? Millions of people seem to think so.
My overall impression from this week is that Google touches almost everything on the internet. I run into it on almost every site and every app that I use. Blocking Google from my life was almost as hard as blocking Amazon, on which much of the non-Google internet relies.
And one day, blocking Google could be even harder. With Sidewalk Labs, a product from the company to “smarten up” urban areas, Google’s trackers will extend into the real world, tracking not just how we move around the web but how we move around our cities . That would lead to tracking that Dhruv and I might not be able to stop.
Next up: Microsoft.
This series was supported by a grant to Dhruv Mehrotra from the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism.