Thousands of Reddit users are trying to delete Google from their lives, but they're finding it impossible because Google is everywhere
Samantha Lee/Business Insider
- Thousands of Reddit users have joined r/deGoogle, a community dedicated to surviving on the internet without Google.
- The goal is to try and avoid handing any personal information over to Google, and involves avoiding services like Google search, YouTube, Gmail, and Google Docs.
- The exercise shows how Google has come to dominate almost every aspect of how we use the internet.
- A privacy expert warned that the more people rely on Google, the more it can lock people into an ecosystem that sucks up data.
It's 7.30 a.m., and you've just woken up.
How many seconds into your day can you last without using Google?
If you used the alarm clock on your phone that runs Google-owned Android, you've failed.
If you're an information junkie who checks the news first thing, you've also probably failed. Most news sites - including this one - run Google-owned analytics or ad tools.
Don't feel too smug if you're an iPhone owner either. Perhaps you checked your route to work on Google Maps, because it's so much better than Apple Maps.
Or you opened up the Safari browser, which uses Google as its default search engine (Google pays Apple $3 billion a year for that privilege.)
Maybe you hopped into an Uber to get somewhere - I'm afraid to say, your Uber app relies on Google Maps data.
In other words, it's really tough to avoid Google from the moment you pick up your phone from to the moment you put it down and go to sleep. Chances are, you're using Google even if you don't consciously know you're using Google. It is omnipresent.
For a dedicated community of Reddit users, Google's all-consuming power has become too terrifying to contemplate. Called r/deGoogle, the community began in 2018 and has grown to more than 6,000 users.
Shona Ghosh/Business Insider
"Google extracts data from us in so many ways which don't involve ads directly," one r/deGoogle moderator, who goes by the username Firemex, told Business Insider.
"We think Google's effect on society is dangerous as it is unaccountable. Spying on people to this extent isn't normal and shouldn't be. We should each control the technology we interact with, not the other way around."
The deGooglers, as they call themselves, have vowed to avoid using any and all Google services in their day-to-day lives. The trouble is that it's almost impossible.
Trying to avoid using Google requires constant vigilance
Google, or its parent Alphabet, now owns the most popular online video service with YouTube, the most popular email service with Gmail, the most popular mobile operating system with Android, and a number of popular cloud services with its G Suite apps. At least eight of its products have a billion users.
It has tentacles in artificial intelligence, fibre internet, and healthcare. Along with Facebook, Google commands a fifth of all advertising spend. Now it's just entered another hugely popular sector: gaming.
While its consumer services may be avoidable, Google is also increasingly tied up with the internet's core infrastructure. Like Amazon, Google runs a cloud service which powers some of the world's most popular apps and sites. When Google Cloud fell over in 2018, it took out Snapchat, Discord, Spotify, and "Pokémon Go."
In essence, you can't really function on the modern internet without running into Google in some way, which makes the de-Googlers' mission all the more difficult.
"[There are] lots of sacrifices," Firemex told Business Insider. "It's not always practical, but it's worth it in the long run. There's a perpetual renewed vindication each time there's a new story about a huge hack, a huge accidental leak of data or some new assault on privacy by Google and others."
r/deGoogle is like a TV thriller where people hide from an all-powerful authority
The r/deGoogle Reddit thread is a little like a virtual version of reality TV shows where "fugitives" try and avoid being caught by all-powerful authorities. Download the wrong app, or visit a website without an ad blocker on, and you've fallen into Google's net.
The de-Googlers' reasons for quitting Google are varied - some have bought into the idea that Google suppresses free speech by prioritising certain search results, while others are freaked out by stories of the company hoovering up location data without permission. Either way, the goal is to untangle themselves from the search giant.
One cheery post is titled "Woohoo! Mostly de-Googled!"
The person, apparently a college student, writes that they have replaced Gmail with Yahoo Mail ("not impressive, but at least it's not full Google"); Chrome with the open source web browser Pale Moon; and Google search with privacy-focused DuckDuckGo.
Even this de-Googler couldn't fully escape. "Youtube is the one area I really couldn't leave, so I still use Youtube (and hence, unfortunately, have a Google account as a result of that) but I've had a look at [alternative] Vidlii and I hope that'll grow, and will post my next video on both Youtube and Vidlii," the person wrote.
VidLii was founded in 2015 as an alternative to YouTube, but it doesn't seem to have gained much traction. Its Twitter account has just 836 followers.
For others, the workarounds quickly become too annoying.
One despairing user explained that his company runs on Google's business services. While he opts out where possible, Google Calendar doesn't play all that well with non-Google calendars and that creates problems.
In a post titled "DeGooglers - i'm at a moment of weakness. Help!" the user wrote that they kept missing and being late to meetings because they can't sync with Google Calendar.
"Google have designed a system that f**ks over anyone not COMPLETELY operating within it. And that's just bullshit," the person fumed. "I'm feeling on the brink of just sucking it up and using Google services. I desperately don't want to, but I also don't want for my life to just be ridiculously hard - or harder than it should be - just as a matter of principle."
Firemex is adamant it's possible to survive totally without Google.
"My work doesn't require Google use... I think [I'd] be prepared to find a different job if it was," he told Business Insider. "Because this is a serious issue, which isn't made any better by short-term acquiescence to being exposed."
For the less hardcore deGooglers it's just easier to admit defeat. "Sometimes we just have to do our best," one commenter replied. "Remember that any steps we do take help. It doesn't have to be all or nothing."
Google has accumulated too much power, and that is ultimately bad for consumers
Given billions of users touch Google's services every day and find their lives are made easier for it, why is it problematic that Google is so big and wide-reaching? It's essentially about the accumulation of power, according to privacy experts.
None of Google's services are free, although they look like it. Google scans the free version of Gmail for keywords which are then used for targeted ads. Google tracks what you watch on YouTube, then shows you pre-roll ads that might be relevant. So it goes for all of Google's "free" services - you pay with your attention to ads.
Being able to find alternatives to Google's ad-funded services gives consumers power. If they don't like the ads or any other feature on YouTube, they could switch to an alternative and take their precious attention and data with them. But if there is no viable alternative to YouTube, consumers are locked into Google's ecosystem, and Google's terms.
And Google has shown it is ready to abuse its dominance. Just this week, it was fined for a third time in as many years by the European Union for strong-arming third-party websites into featuring its adverts in search results. As a result, Google has racked up EU penalties worth $9.4 billion since 2017.
Tomaso Falchetta, Privacy International's head of policy, told Business Insider via email: "Big companies such as Google, Facebook and others continue to impose terms and conditions on users which allow them to collect, analyse and share more and more personal data in ways that people do not understand given the lack of transparency or cannot genuinely consent to.
"These privacy harms are directly caused by their business models, which increasingly rely on the availability of users' data, and can impose excessive collection of data on people who have become 'captive users' to their providers, given their lack of genuine choice."
There is also a sense of anger among deGooglers that Google is intrusive in non-transparent ways and for inexplicable reasons.
One user complained that the Google Translate app on Android won't work properly if you don't allow it to access your contact book. It isn't clear why a translate app needs to know who your friends are. "So now I can't even use Google translate without allowing "Contacts" permissions," they wrote.
According to its Google Play store listing, Google's Translate app has 20 different permission requests for Android, asking for access to the microphone, camera, SMS messages, and even Bluetooth devices. There is no explanation as to why the Android app needs access to all these different functions.
By contrast, Apple's mobile software iOS gives users considerably more control over what data apps can access. Google Translate for iOS only requests access to voice assistant Siri, and that's about it.
How to take the first steps and cut Google out of your life
Gizmodo journalist Kashmir Hill tried to cut Google out of her life in January, building a custom VPN that would even block Google-powered apps and websites. This, she wrote, resulted in irritations like having to use worse alternatives and her computer running more slowly.
According to the Reddit users who spoke to Business Insider, most people don't need to go as far as creating a custom VPN. According to those we spoke to, these are the first steps they recommended taking if you're thinking about cutting Google out of your life:
- Switch to an iPhone, because Apple doesn't monetise people's data and allows granular privacy controls.
- If you're on an Android phone, and feel technically up to it, install a custom ROM like LineageOS. A custom Android ROM is an operating system that can replace the pre-installed version of Android on your phone, and can give you the Android experience without the privacy-invading Google elements tacked on. Be aware that it can void the warranty for your phone too.
- Use privacy-focused DuckDuckGo or Startpage.com as your default search engine.
- Swap Gmail for ProtonMail, an encrypted, paid email service.
- Use Apple Maps.
- BUT... there are no competitive alternatives to YouTube. As one user told Business Insider: "Resign yourself to Alphabet knowing, via YouTube, you know cats are superior to dogs (always) and that, via Google Translate, you're trying (badly) to learn French."
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