Never-Googlers take the ultimate step to guard their data


Such never-Googlers are pushing friends and family to give up the search and advertising titan, while others are taking to social media to get word out. Online guides have sprouted up to help consumers untangle themselves from Google.

These intrepid web users say they’d rather deal with daily inconveniences than give up more of their data. That means setting up permanent vacation responders on Gmail and telling friends to resend files or video links that don’t require Google software. More than that, it takes a lot of discipline.

People like Kelly are trying to build barriers to Google and other tech giants largely due to increasing concerns about the massive data collection. A series of privacy scandals showing how these companies collect and use consumer data has raised alarm bells for many people about how much they’ve traded for customisation and targeted ads.

I am giving up more than I am getting

Joshua Greenbaum

Brands are jumping on the trend, advertising what they say are superior privacy controls. At the CES 2019 tech conference earlier this year, Apple promised in a billboard above Las Vegas that “What Happens on Your iPhone, Stays on Your iPhone,” though many apps siphon data from the phones and track users. And DuckDuckGo, a privacy-oriented search engine, said daily average searches have grown to 42.4 million, from 23.5 million a year earlier; although still a fraction of Google’s.

Over the past few months Jim Lantz, of Spokane, Washington, has been systematically eliminating Google products from his online life, spurred by reports of how the Silicon Valley company collects and distributes customer data. That’s included scanning lengthy privacy agreements and researching websites’ legal statements.

“It’s quite the challenge figuring out what they own,” said the wholesale sales manager.

“I don’t want to give up every ounce of myself over to Google,” he said. “At least I can make it hard for them.”

Google in May unveiled new features it said would help users protect more of their data, including storing more of it on personal devices, rather than in cloud computing centres, and giving people more control over how and when tracking software, or cookies, is deployed. And the web search giant is offering ways to permanently erase data, including search and location history.

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No data on how many consumers may be phasing out Google is readily available, and the company didn’t provide figures on how many have deleted its apps. “We want to help people understand and control their data, even if they want to leave Google,” said spokesman Aaron Stein. He pointed to Google’s service allowing consumers to download information stored with the company for their use elsewhere.

Joshua Greenbaum, of Berkeley, California, said he pays about $US100 ($143) per year to use Microsoft Office 365 software that he says has better privacy protections than Google’s. “I am giving up more than I am getting” from Google, said the 61-year tech consultant who started scaling back his Google usage a couple years ago when advertisements began appearing in his Gmail account.

“With Gmail they get your email, with Android real-time location and app usage, with Maps more location data, with Google Wallet that can see into your finances, with Google Docs your personal and work history, Chrome gives your online history, your location,” Greenbaum said. “I started asking myself what other data could they get to.”

Tech firms like Google say the data helps drive more personal advertisements, which are beneficial to consumers, and underwrite products that would otherwise not be free, like email and photo storage programs.

But there’s some evidence that so closely tracking people’s online behaviour may not provide the boost that tech companies tout. A recent study by academics from three US universities who observed millions of transactions at a large media company over the course of a week found that such behavioral targeting only amounts to 4 percent more revenue than when tracking is not enabled through online “cookies,” software that records browsing activity. That suggests that companies like Google and Facebook could easily absorb the lost revenue if they were less meticulous about tracking consumers.

Some lawmakers and Google’s competitors have expressed concern that the search giant can unfairly control ad pricing and other online activity because of its outsize market share. The European Commission this year fined Google about $US1.7 billion over allegations that the company thwarted rivals from working with other companies that had deals with Google.

Data analyst Peter Rowell, 64, pays $US8 monthly for a private web network, known as a VPN, which helps cloak a user’s online identity. He said he worries private information about what he does online could end up spread far across the web. “Google’s got enough of my information,” he said, noting he has deleted the company’s apps from his iPhone and switched to web surfing on DuckDuckGo and Mozilla as his browser.

Still, some academics say that efforts to abandon use of Google — or Amazon and Microsoft, for that matter — are nearly impossible. Those companies all have cloud services businesses, or essentially data centres that other companies can rent, and they power most websites, as well as other consumer services.

Quitting Google is a major undertaking that may not be possible, said Jonathan Mayer, an assistant professor of computer science at Princeton University.

“The reality is, you’re going to use these services whether intentionally or not,” he said. “It is exceedingly hard to control the data flows of these companies.”

Not everyone is avoiding Google just to protect their data. Amy Manlapas, a high school teacher in Atlanta, said the company’s recent failure to more strongly condemn a conservative YouTube personality for repeatedly mocking a gay reporter caused her to stop using the video sharing site. She said she is researching document-storing software for her files so that she can drop Google Docs, and plans to eliminate her use of Gmail and other Google services.

“I don’t want to give my time and money to a company that’s not going to be conscious of diversity,” she said.

“It’s hard work being ethical.”

Washington Post

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