Yes, there is! Is it a more convenient life? Well, no. Was it easy to get there? Hell no. More secure? Probably not. More privacy? Maybe. Feel Like a Boss? Oh, yeah!
After years of wanting, thinking and hesitating: I am free of Google’s surveillance program. Maybe you can be too!
In case you are wondering why Google, Facebook and other so-called Tech Giants are no good, you must have been living under a stone. Which may be a good thing, actually. In short: tax evasion, breaking democracy, making users addicted, micro-influencing behavior for their own good, spreading false news, promoting social polarization and enabling genocide. In other words: Google acts in the best interests of Google, which is capital accumulation, not in the best interest of you and humanity.
Likely you are like most of us: we have talked about it, we saw those documentaries, read the news articles, but still use Google Search, Google Drive, GMail, Google Contacts, Google Calendar, Chrome, Google Maps, YouTube and/or Google Docs on a daily basis. Because they come installed with our (Android) phone, because they are “free”, because everyone else uses them, because we have no idea otherwise, because… tell me your excuses.
Same for me. Until now. Here is what I did.
That is the easy one. Actually replaced it years ago with Startpage.com and recently also DuckDuckGo. These are privacy-friendly anonymous search engines which are just as good as Google. In fact Startpage.com uses Google Search in the background, but puts a layer on top to protect your privacy. You are out of your personalized “micro-influencing” search bubble and targeted ads and get the “pure” search results you believe you were getting in the first place. DuckDuckGo works in a similar way and uses Bing (Microsoft) Search. Simply go to startpage.com or duckduckgo.com and start searching. And follow their instructions to install as your default search engine.
Actually, I never really used Google Drive that much. Only when others ‘forced’ me to use it and when using Google Docs occasionally for online collaboration on documents. For many years I use a paid account on Dropbox which gives me 2 TB for EUR 10 or so per month. Yes, I believe Dropbox is also problematic in some ways, as it is a big American company under the Patriot Act. But at least I am paying Dropbox, so I am an actual client of them and do not “pay” with my data. Hopefully they do not analyze my data for their benefit and hopefully the US Government does not tap them. Which probably they do, so Dropbox also needs to go some day, maybe for NextCloud.
Oh, I almost forgot. An Android phone with Google Apps installed also relies on Google Drive for making back-ups of a lot of stuff, including Whatsapp messages and media. Recently I switched from using Samsung’s ‘Stock’ Android with Google Apps to a completely Google free version of Android’s Open Source Project called LineageOs. And I deleted my Whatsapp account. Instead I use Telegram, Signal and SMS and even got several people close to me to switch (actions speak louder than words).
When GMail was introduced as a beta, I was one of the enthusiasts. Finally not having to clean up my mailbox anymore because I ran out of the 50 MB that DDS was giving me! I remember a discussion some years later with someone about the quote “There is no such thing as a free lunch.” and arguing that GMail an exception. How naive of me.
To get rid of GMail I used a “soft migration” approach, first getting a new domain name and e-mail address from Greenhost and then starting to e-mail people with that. Automatically people will reply to that address and then use it also for new e-mails as their e-mail program suggests it as first option. After over a year I rarely get e-mails anymore on GMail and I never needed to tell anyone to “please use my new e-mail address”. Of course I did need to update my e-mail address on many websites to the new one, but I also did that gradually. Every time I encountered the GMail address somewhere, I updated it.
To be honest, I have not deleted my GMail account yet because the Belastingdienst still sends me some e-mails on it occasionally, even though I updated to the new one via DigiD. But I did delete all my e-mails from it and enabled the out-of-office reply. Now all I need is some more willpower to call the Belastingdienst and fight that uphill battle to get the address they use changed in some obscure place…
Google Contacts and Google Calendar
In the years that I have been thinking about getting rid of Google, replacing Google Contacts and Google Calendar were the though ones. I knew I needed to find a new platform that provides these features, migrating all content, making sure it is all there and making sure it still integrates with my phone and integrates with people that I share my calendar with.
This seemed like a huge amount of work, with many things that can go wrong and a lot of risk if things did go wrong. Until a few months ago when I took another angle at the problem.
Instead of “having to replace Google Contacts”, I did an experiment with my unused Samsung Galaxy S3 Neo to find out if it could run an Android version completely free of Google’s (dis)services. I tried to find alternatives for each of the functions that Google provides on Android. A Contacts app is there by default, but not synced to “the cloud”. Then I found out that DavX5 and NextCloud are rather mature alternatives and got a free account from TheGood.Cloud to give it a go.
That worked remarkably well and I also used it to sync the Calendar. As my confidence grew with this experiment, I tried to replicate the results on my Samsung Galaxy S7 with Samsung’s ‘Stock’ Android. So even though the Google Apps were still on my phone, I just installed the alternatives and started migrating to them.
Migrating my calendars was a bit harder than my contacts, as the import function gave some errors. Fortunately the service at TheGood.Cloud is quite good, so we got it them resolved. There was one inconvenience: before I shared my calendar with others and vice versa, even being able to edit each others calendars. That did not work anymore. TheGood.Cloud does provide a feature to view Google Calendars and as such also make them appear on your phone, but that syncing functionality is buggy and no matter how many e-mail conversations I had with their service people, we never got it working.
Fortunately, I was able to convince the others to also migrate to NextCloud on TheGood.Cloud, as functionally it is pretty much the same. Of course under the condition that I configure everything for them. Now I do not need to use Google Calendar at all anymore (… except for that one client that uses it).
At the moment I am using a second hand Samsung Galaxy S9 with LineageOs and without any Google Apps as described above.
Honestly, Chrome is a great web browser. It is fast, has a clean user interface and websites work very well on it. However, it also shares all that you do with it with Google. I have been using FireFox on my laptop for years now and it works almost just as great. It also provides syncing of bookmarks, history and logins with other devices and the user experience is also very smooth. I do find it to be a bit “heavier” in use of memory and CPU and sometimes for some websites it suddenly freezes. But all in all, very good for everyday use. And as mentioned above, I use Startpage.com as search engine and also have configured rather strict privacy-enhancing options.
On my phone I use the DuckDuckGo browser app for regular searching and reading. It is very privacy-aware and gets rid of pretty much all (tracking) advertisements. For websites where I need to log in, I use IceCat, a variant of FireFox, because the DuckDuckGo browser really throws the baby out with the bathwater and deletes all browsing data when a tab is closed. F-Droid is a great Free & Open Source alternative to Google Play, although you will not find alternatives for all apps. So I also use apkmirror.com (only verified trusted apps) and extract APKs from my S7 that are not available on apkmiror, like Dutch banking apps.
I was using Google Maps quite a lot, both on my phone and laptop: for navigation in the car, to plan my public transportation journey, to find shops, restaurants and cafes in the area, to look up opening times, to check traffic, etc. Not using Google Maps anymore may be the most inconvenient one in this list.
On my phone I now use FlitsMeister for car navigation including traffic and OsmAnd to look up addresses and travel times by bike and on foot. On my laptop I use OpenStreetMap to look up addresses, which means I first need to go to the website of a place to look up that address. For opening times of shops I need to go to the website of that shop. And for public transportation COVID provided a solution: I do not use it anymore. But if I will again in the future, then the NS and OV929 apps probably will be helpful.
As you see, YouTube is not in strike-through, but in parentheses. I still use it, but only from search results and not logged in as user. YouTube simply has great video content, about many topics of my interest, that I just cannot find anywhere else online. But at least I made Google tracking and profiling a little bit harder by using anonymous search as entry point and using a privacy-enhanced browser. And I do not browse through YouTube’s recommendations anymore, so do not get caught up in my own bubble. Plus that not being logged in makes it harder for Google to create that bubble in the first place.
For online collaboration on documents Google Docs honestly provides a great user experience and solid features. And when my clients use it and ask me to review a document or collaborate on it, I just need to go with that and be of service to them.
However, Google Docs is not my default go-to place anymore to create new documents. Instead I use Libre Office on my laptop. This is a free and open source alternative to Microsoft Office and provides a full suite with great functionality. For ‘fixed’ documents like invoices and proposals, I export them to PDF and send them via e-mail. For documents that require review, Libre Office can save in Microsoft format, so people can use Microsoft Office.
With TheGood.Cloud I did get a Google Docs alternative called Collabora Online, but have not used it until now. For personal use LibreOffice is sufficient and my current clients use Microsoft Teams for collaboration, which comes with online collaborative versions of Microsoft Office.
As you see, I have replaced most of Google’s ‘services’ and can still function in society. The biggest hurdles were installing LineageOS and replacing Google Calendar. After tying up some final loose ends I will be able to delete GMail and with that my Google Account as well.
Getting YouTube completely out still seems impossible, Google really has a de-facto monopoly for video content.
You can do it too, just start simple with replacing Chrome or Google Search. That already makes a difference in the data you give Google and makes you more a ‘user’ again instead of the ‘one being used’.