Experiment timeframe: December 2018 - December 2019

Google. Do I need it?

Until late 2018, I’ve always been a very loyal consumer of Google products such as Translate, Gmail, Drive, Calendar, Keep, Hangouts, Google+ and Android under the belief that it is a fair exchange of privacy for convenience. Or is it?

Results (Feb 04, 2020)

In this experiment, I stopped using Google products one by one. I eventually deleted my Google account, after I downloaded a backup of my data on their servers, in January 2020.

By now, I am confident that I can live not only without significant inconveniences, but rather with great satisfaction, without any of Google products.

It was just much easier than I thought. It feels like I’ve grew out of many fallacies at once by this move :)

In the checklist at the bottom, there are more details on the alternatives I’m using for each product.

Motivation

Google has great power over all of us. Why? because:

  1. They collect massive amount of data on all their users through their products
  2. Google Search is the main entrypoint to the internet for the majority of users
  3. Google Ads is spread all over the world wide web, influencing people buying decisions

At work, I have also been using other Google products that target businesses such as Analytics, AdWords and GSuite for many years now.

Before I moved to Germany mid 2015, I used to have a bunch of theoretical concerns on data privacy and digital monopoly in the internet age and their seemingly destructive net effect on consumer behavior in free markets and on the public opinion.

It took a couple of months after living and working in Berlin to witness many of those effects in real life. As an immediate reaction, I started closing many accounts on online services that capitalized directly on my data to influence my buying decisions or to alter my view of the world for their localized profits.

When an online service I use had terms of service that are either vague or explicit regarding their collection of user data, I chose to close it. It didn’t take so long to realize that especially big products that monopolized their markets such as Facebook and Linkedin were also a bad deal on a much simpler level. I did not need to even think about their data collection effects at all, but only about the amount of time and effort invested and how higher it was than the value I got out of thoem in return.

Another fear was also proven invalid. I did not lose friends nor I missed any important news about my close friends after I stopped using Facebook, nor I got rejected by companies I applied for when I did not have a Linkedin to send to them.

On the contrary, I won lots of time back that I could effectively spend with my close friends and on presenting my own career path outside of templated experience and expectations.

That got me questioning again my deal with Google, and the assumed fair trade of privacy-for-convenience I do with their products. Is the convenience Google products provide really worth the level of privacy breach I allow them into my life, and the degree of dependency I create on their products across devices and across personal and work accounts?

“Do I need it?” one by one

On it’s face, it seems almost impossible to quantitavely measure the degree of influence digital monopolists have with their algorithms and business models on people and markets. I do not intend to include that in any of my experiments.

Rather, I allow the assumption that there is a fair amount of undesirable effects on me personally to be temporarily true, then I take the second part of the deal a little beyond convenience and ask myself: “Do I need it?”. That question is what this experiment is about regarding Google products.

This quesition in Google case is orders of magnitude harder to answer compared to other platforms like Facebook or Linkedin. Google has many products. Is each of them a bad deal? If not, which ones?

Leaving all Google products at once as an experiment simply won’t work as it is guaranteed it will cause a lot of damange. And even if that damage was accepted, it won’t be obvious what damange caused by dropping which product.

The next obvious way to apprach it is to go about it one by one, starting from the ones that seem to collect the most data for the least amount of convenience or the ones that are easier to drop/replace.

The alternatives I am using or will use may not have better privacy policies than Google products do. At the end, the only proper privacy solution is an offline one, or equivalent.

However, I try to choose alternatives that are not monopolizing on retargetting me with data they collect, or when they have a clear business model in which I pay a subscription fee or purchase value.

Checklist
  • Google Authenticator (for 2FA)

    I stopped using 2FA, and if I really have to I use SMS only

  • Google Calendar

    I'm using Time Tree app for personal calendars. Later I will switch to ProtonCalendar once out of beta. I'm testing it in beta on the side now, or find a better subscription-based alternative worst case.

  • Google Translate

    I use DeepL. There's no app yet, but the site is mobile-first and works neatly. Your translations are fed into their machine learning models, but they are not used to create a profile of you nor sell any of that data. There's a clear pricing and business model based on translation volume and few more features, like data confidentiality.

  • Gmail

    I'm using Protonmail. Fully encrypted, clear pricing model and seems to grow steadily. I use their VPN too, and it is quite decent so far.

  • Google Photos

    I stopped syncing my photos to any cloud-storage for the moment. I keep encrypted backups on separate disks. I may build home backup solution, with ability to sync to a remote location, or possibly encrypt and store a second backup on S3 Deep Archive

  • Google Search

    I use DuckDuckGo as default search engine in my browser and on my phone. It is a great alternative to Google Search, and haven't encountered any inconvenience using it yet.

  • Google Keep

    No note taking on my phone. On my pc, I keep notes closer to where they belong, for instance idea log document per project. I also build a habit of drafting up a complete iteration of a thought and store it where it should be when it is mature. Example are post topics that I used to keep in Google Keep. Now I draft and publish right away once I have the idea, or I drop it from my head entirely if it's not worth it.

  • Google Drive

    Same for Google Photos.

  • Google Docs/Sheets/Slides

    I didn't use it that much before anyway, esp. for collaborative stuff, outside of work. So for personal stuff, I stick now to Open Document Format files which can be edited by any software that support them (e.g. MS Office, LibreOffice, OpenOffice). They are then stored on my pc, and archived on my backup hard disks if necessary, or sometimes checked in to project git repository.

  • Google Contacts

    I imported my contacts into ProtonMail contacts. I access them there when necessary. On my phone, I keep only a short list of numbers I need often. Family and close friends mainly, especially on normal non-smart (stupid?) phones during my other experiment Would I be smarter without a smart phone?.

  • Google Hangouts

    Didn't use it that much before either outside of work. People can still invite me to hangouts they create with their accounts, so I was not left out entirely from any important meetings happening there.

  • Google Maps

    So far in Berlin, I rely on BVG's FahrInfo app to check routes to places I do not know at all, or can't figure out on my own. The rest, believe it or not, I use street signs and house numbers, and best of all I ask people. This makes the trip to the place so much fun (ain't surprising, using your brain brings a feeling of joy in itself, even for a simple task like this one).