Pulling away from Big Google

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by on 2017-02-09 | License Permalink

This is designed to be a living article, and will be edited as time progresses. I will do my best to highlight edits as effectively possible for transparency’s sake.

Yesterday evening, a friend of mine pointed me to a post, which pointed to an article that detailed how Google has dropped its ban on personally identifiable Web Tracking. The article was dated Oct 2016, which means it’s ancient in Web-years. The fact I’ve only heard about this now is concerning in and of itself tbh.

What does this mean for you? Google has always tracked you, and built a profile around you. However, it’s never combined the ‘profile’ that they build for you with the personally-identifiable name that they have from your use of their services (GMail). They bought ad-service DoubleClick back in 2007, and that’s how ads follow you around the Web. What’s happened now (actually, what happened in 2016) is that Google have changed their policy to allow those ads access to your name and other information that Google has about you. Better yet, they can now build “build a complete portrait of a user by name, based on everything they write in email, every website they visit and the searches they conduct." (quote from same source as before).

Ok, terrifying. What can we do? The long-term answer is obviously a struggle for privacy over profit, and has implications for class warfare and revolution against capitalism. You can begin by cluing up on privacy stuff, I recommend Bruce Schneier, and Cathy O’Neil. From there, move into privacy activist circles, and understand the political economy of the web. Recommended reading here is Dmytri Kleiner’s TeleKommunist Manifesto, which is a fantastic read even if you’re not a comrade. It’ll clue you up on how the Web began usurping the disintermediation abilities that were the initial great leap forward granted by Internet. Perhaps, even join your local Pirate Party if you don’t have an existing, larger scale, allegiance.

What about the short and medium term? The answer is that you need to totally and utterly remove your dependence on Google. This isn’t easy. And as more information about more services becomes available, it’ll get harder. But the more people who do this, the more that Google gets the message. Hit them where they hurt - wallet. You’re their product, and if they can’t sell you they can’t get paid as much. This being said, this process is a journey and a struggle, and it’s messy. It becomes easier if you’re not fussed about using other, proprietary, services to replace Google ones. If you’re an Open-Source head like I am, it can get a bit dark at times and you might need to learn some basic tech skills to scaffold your own ecosystem. I’m sorry :-(

Anyway, here’s the list of alternatives to Google stuff that I’ve come up with so far. Most of the edits to the article will be made here. I’ve divided it into various “arenas”, although the intersections of devices and services and cross-platform nature of the web makes these divisions a bit meaningless at times. Whenever I come up with a viable alternative format – I’ll let you know. Note, there is already a comprehensive article about this from elsewhere. The purpose of this piece is to try and gear it towards my friends/colleagues as well as acting as a checklist for myself, to provide an overview of the software and services that I use.

The Web

  • Google Search, use DuckDuckGo
  • GMail, this is a fucker. If you’re not bothered about other corps, then maybe try Yahoo Mail or Microsoft’s LiveMail/Hotmail/whatever. If you’re fortunate enough to have the capital you can perhaps purchase a privacy-focused email account. A DIY solution would take about £30 for a Raspberry PI, and the ability to follow a tutorial. A hack/workaround would be to only use the mail service from a local client running on your phone / PC, with access to PGP capability. See below
  • Google Calendar, I’m still working on this. Sorry.
  • YouTube, you could refuse to access it. But that’s shooting yourself in terms of access to media / information / entertainment. I postulate that a really activist thing to do is to take from YouTube without giving back (ie giving your usage data to Google). Start by signing out, and accessing the site in private browsing. A level up from this could be to disable Javascript in your browser, or access the site using Tor. Tor isn’t perfect, but it’s a start.
  • More soon!

Your PC

  • Uninstall Chrome. Ffs uninstall it now. Get Firefox. It’s so much nicer, and sync works well across devices. Levelling up from this means using Tor but it’s not perfect and it means taking a bit of a speed hit. I use Tor sparingly for specific purposes (all innocent, actually), and Firefox with a host of security-plugins.
  • Install an adblocker, The traditional goto for blocking ads has been AdBlock plus; but it turns out that they’re scabs. I use uBlock. These go as browser plugins.
  • Use Local Email Clients Remember when email was a piece of software that lived on your PC? It still should. Even if you’re using a web-hosted email server, you can install Thunderbird. If you still kinda need GMail, you can connect it to here. What’s the benefit then? Firstly, it gets you used to the idea of running email on your local machine instead of firing up a web browser, breaking the twitch. Second, you can pair it with GPG and the Thunderbird plugin Enigmail to begin encrypting your personal communications to each other.

Your Phone

(This section mainly applies to people with Android devices)