My ongoing journey living without the ubiquitous tools of a tech giant.
18 months ago I went on a quest: to quit, entirely, using all the products of just one company — Google. It should have been a simple task, but instead, it took me six months to find enough functional alternatives to make the move and close my nearly decade-old account account.
A year later, I’m proud to report that I have not returned to using any Google products. I’ve not only kept using most the alternatives in my original article, but have found several others that make my Google-free life even easier. I still feel, everyday, empowered to be in control of my own data and digital presence, to play, test and learn new about new tools, and be part of a community that is seeking to restore competition, privacy, and freedom to the global web.
Nevertheless, it’s been an interesting year. I notice every time someone says to “Google,” dozens of time a day, more obvious when you are explicitly not googling. I’ve found that people always assume that if you are not using Google products, then you must be anti-Google — which is not the case. I just want the freedom to choose what services I use, and not be forced to rely so much on a single company. Google is pervasive in our digital lives in a way no other corporation is or ever has been. That is what I dislike, not Google itself, or its products. Its dominance reflects larger issues with the internet itself, and how it is increasingly controlled by a few large multinational companies.
That being said, I’m also more hopeful. The article has had incredible staying power, getting more shares, responses, and claps every month. Several people have told me that they’ve shifted in part or entirely from Google since reading my story. Many of the alternatives I mentioned are growing, like DuckDuckGo, which has seen searches jump 54 percent in a year. People are aware of the problem.
So what has it been like being on the other side, living in our digital, interconnected society without using the products of the main company responsible for that interconnectedness? Here’s what I’ve learned being (mostly) Google free over the past year.
Quitting Google is an ongoing process
The dream was that I would close my Google account and be done with the company, forever. Alas, it was not to be that easy. Even if I did not use Google products, nearly everyone around me did, and they would still communicate with me via Google.
Can you really be Google free when people all around you rely on Google apps? I regularly get sent Google calendar invites, Google map links, requests to do Google Hangouts calls. Websites automatically integrate with Google, so I have to resist by manually entering details into my calendar or contacts. Other times, I have to actively push people to use Jitsi Meet or Signal instead of Hangouts.
Being sent Google maps links is particularly frustrating as Google’s mobile browser interface is a data hog, often taking forever to load. I also learned that you cannot change the display language if you’re not logged into Google! You get the default for wherever you are. As someone who spends nearly half the year abroad, often in countries where I can’t read the language like Japan or Hong Kong, this can be frustrating as I am told to meet at a location I can’t comprehend or even copy and paste properly, necessitating follow up questions.
Portability is freedom
Still, overall, the move has been positive. Whatever frustrations come with having to always resist and communicate my Google-free status have been far outweighed by the ability to customize and control my data. When you use Google products, you are forced to stay within the design and user interface paradigm of Google. So when they remove a product that users love, like Google Reader, or Inbox, you are stuck with whatever Google replaces it with, no matter what you want. Since the vast majority of Google users use their free products, it means the decisions are not being made with your needs in mind, but the desires of Google’s revenue generating data mining or advertising operations.
While there is a learning curve, I’ve found that outside Google, I can organize my interfaces with far more customization. Using open source tools like Davx5, my calendar, contacts, and Nextcloud notes can be displayed as I please. I can add and remove new features, test new plug-ins, with relative ease. After a year, my daily interfaces are far more in-line with my own needs than they ever were when I used Google products, and I find that I’m far more efficient and organized now than I was a year ago.
The other benefit is that, now that my data is no longer trapped in Google’s servers, or tied to a Google service, I can move it around more freely. Getting out of Google was far more difficult than switching from OwnCloud to NextCloud, testing Mailbox.org’s Calendar tool, of using Mega’s secure cloud file storage system.
There are sacrifices
That being said, I still can not do everything I want easily without a Google account. Sometimes Google is the passport of the web, a requirement to entry.
For example, I was invited to join one journalist community, but the first thing I was asked was — what’s your Google account? When I told them that I did not have a Google account, I was told to get one. Only after several back and forth emails did they agree to accommodate me. Other times, its group meetings done on Google Hangouts, which no longer works on a non-chrome browser. When I suggest using Jitsi Meet or an old-fashioned conference call, I sometimes encounter a lot of resistance. Other times, people ask me to send them Google calendar invites, or send me details for a meeting in a calendar invite that I can’t open or see without a Google account.
These issues may seem minor, but show how reliant we are on Google. There shouldn’t be just one platform that mediates so much of our communication. In fact, it’s so difficult that I’ve failed in two areas to quit Google.
I’m a freelance journalist and write for various outlets all around the world. While most publications I contribute do not use Google Docs — and for good reason, as there are security concerns, a few only do edits via Docs. Because their website and publishing apparatus are connected to Docs, I was unable to push back and have had to open a dummy account just for this purpose. I hope that in the future, these publications will shift to more secure, self-hosted alternatives like CollaboraOffice or OnlyOffice, which can be adapted to their specific needs. They can also use custom Content Management Systems (CMS) like Wordpress, Clearvoice, or Arc Publishing.
My other minor failure? The one platform that seems to have no true alternative: YouTube. There have been times I’ve had to watch YouTube videos of press conferences, events, or protests related to my work. Occasionally, those require me to login due to their containing sensitive content.
For now, I do my best to limit my exposure to Docs or YouTube by using a separate browser, never taking ownership of a file, and erasing everything, including emptying the trash regularly and deleting my YouTube history.
The Good News: There are more alternatives
My list a year ago was comprehensive, but there’s a lot more out there now, including platforms that readers have shared. Here’s even more alternatives to help you transition away from Google.
- For search, now you can use Ecosia (which plants trees), Qwant, and Search Encrypt. I’m using Qwant more and more for a simple reason — they do their own indexing, while Startpage, DuckDuckGo, Ecosia and others are meta-search engines that still utilize Google’s index.
- For email there’s Startmail, Mailbox.org and Mailspring — all of which have user-friendly interfaces. Meanwhile, Protonmail has improved significantly in the past year and I’m very happy with it.
- For data storage, if you don’t want to self-host a Nextcloud, you can now use fully encrypted and secure Google Drive alternatives like Mega, Wuala and Spideroak — all of which have Dropbox or Google Drive like capabilities. I myself now use Mega to share folders and documents or collaborate on teams projects.
- For maps, there’s now Qwant Maps and OsmAnd.
- For Calendars, there’s Mailbox.org’s Calendar, and MineTime, which has several features that make it far more features than Google calendar. I’m eagerly awaiting Protonmail’s Calendar this fall!
- For Mobile OS, there’s now also E.Foundation.
- For Chat, there’s Keybase, which is great for teams or projects.
The existence of more tools and alternatives, including privacy-minded ones, means that its now easier to find alternative products that fulfill your digital needs. Most of the recommendations in my initial article are still out there, and have improved in the past year. I’m certain there are even more — so please share others you’ve found or used in the comments.
We need a Google-free, open, inter-operable Internet
While there are more alternatives than ever before, the core problem remains the same. Google has embedded itself into the very architecture of the web, determining where traffic flows, who gets access to what information, and even the coding language of websites. Despite the attention that my piece and others have gotten, and the emergence of Google-free alternatives, the company is doing just fine. DuckDuckGo has grown immensely, but still doesn’t even have one percent of the search market.
So even though I am heartened that there are so many more tools, and that my article keeps getting attention, I have to keep reminding people that the goal of my quitting Google was not to show how easy it is to quit, but how difficult it is. That’s the problem.
The fact that so many alternatives I use provide equal or better service than Google shows that it is not just about the product. Google has trapped us in their suite of connected services, making it so difficult to leave that most never even try, assuming that because they are the biggest company, their tools must be the best. They are sometimes, but just as often, they are not. Moreover, one-size does not fit all in a world with so many different people, cultures, and communication styles.
The discussion on this has shifted immensely in the past year. Users like me can only do so much. We need better governance of the tech sector, and a focus on interoperability and openness, so that tools can communicate with each other and we are not trapped in a single, Google ecosystem. The Elizabeth Warren campaign even has a plan to break up big tech, and last month, the Justice Department announced a broad, anti-trust review of the tech sector. There is also momentum on this from Europe and Japan. I’d like to see companies like Google forced to adopt open source protocols or standards so that alternative tools than link to Google more seamlessly — and make it even easier to switch services.
As for me? I will stay Google free going forward. Join me if you can, and if you can’t, do more to raise awareness of the need for a more open, free, and democratic web by demanding competition and openness online.