I've been in Google's ecosystem for almost ten years. I made the switch from Apple in 2009 after being a devout iPerson for six years.
It got to a stage where I grew tired of the lack of customisation in iOS that I saw was possible in Android. I relished that in Android, you could theme the UI and create your home screens - a sort of dashboard that was personalised to what you found relevant or helpful. I felt restricted and trapped in Apple's iOS, and I found myself using Google's products more and more.
So, I made the switch. I purchased a Samsung Note 5 and began my commitment to the Google ecosystem, and for years, all was well.
You could have even called me an advocate. Why? Because Google's SAAS offering is robust and affordable. Each product is feature-rich in its own right, and I, as a result, use the vast majority of Google's applications to help me run my business and organise my personal life.
Over the course of a few years, the culmination of the following things led me to the decision to try and ditch Google for good.
I've developed a general distrust of tech giants such as Google and Facebook. A sentiment that came to the forefront of my mind when I decided to switch from Google Chrome to Mozilla Firefox to test out it's new performance enhancements.
Over the course of a few weeks, a combination of Mozilla Firefox features, products and email drip campaigns caused me to consider internet security. Mozilla's mission spoke to me.
"Mozilla's mission is to ensure the Internet is a global public resource, open and accessible to all. An Internet that truly puts people first, where individuals can shape their own experience and are empowered, safe and independent."Mozilla
Their Firefox browser, coupled with other products such as Firefox Lockwise, Firefox Send and Firefox Monitor made me aware of online security and how often I was being tracked on the web. I mean, I already know that I am being tracked - I've helped companies implement these types of digital strategies, but the sheer quantity of websites that Firefox was blocking on my behalf was staggering, and it instilled in me a desire to take back control. The appeal with Firefox was that I could take back a higher degree of control without compromising my browsing experience.
Discussions with colleagues at this point had already turned to "what do you have to hide?" and well, the answer is nothing, but that's not my point.
Large companies collect your data when you browse the Internet to improve their products, provide you with a unique experience or sell you a product based on your interests - I get that. But do they need so much information?
For example, about a year ago, I discovered that Google Maps had been tracking and logging my location for the previous five years. A log of everywhere I had walked, driven and stayed from 2015-2019 was available on the web version of Google Maps, complete with a time-stamped map to show me where I went at specific times. I can see how this information would benefit Google as they would be able to analyse my behaviour and target Ads to me, but I'd question whether it really helps me. I don't require a time-stamped log of everywhere I've been sitting in an account that is tied to my name, age, profile photo and more. Coupled with the fact that Google records your search and YouTube activity by default to offer you a 'better experience', it's apparent that they know way too much about me.
How about Google rewards? I was enticed for years at the prospect of Google Play credits in exchange for surveys. I filled in survey after survey in exchange for Google Play credits. Questions relating to marital status, annual salary, number of children, whether I own or rent my home - the extensive list goes on. And, now I've come to the realisation that I'm not comfortable with such a detailed profile of myself being owned and used by a global conglomerate.
Again, I find myself needing to say that I've got nothing to hide. It's the principle of the matter. All of this personal information is in the hands of a giant U.S. corporation. Given a choice, I wouldn't hand over this level of data to a government organisation here in Australia on principle, so why should I trust Google?
And, it looks like I'm not alone in my distrust of technology giants. My feelings correlate with the 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer (PDF) which surveyed over 34,000 people worldwide and found that there was widespread distrust over all four societal institutions: government, business, NGOs and media. Citing page 15 of the report, Trust in technology worldwide has dropped with the most significant declines in France, Canada, Italy, Russia, Singapore, the USA and Australia (that's me).
Both Search Engines and Social Media's trust scores dropped in 2020 in comparison to 2019 with Edelman labelling 2020 as the year for Trust: Competence and Ethics.
Furthermore, a sizeable legal challenge is looming for Google. The U.S. justice department is currently drafting an anti-trust lawsuit against Google after a year of investigation, accusing them of thwarting competition in the digital advertising market where they hold significant market share. Where this goes of course, is yet to be seen.
You would think as a paid user of Google's services; I would obtain access to services that users of the free Gmail tier receive, but this is not the case when it comes to Google Home. As well as utilising G Suite for Business for my business account, I use it for my personal account to allow my email address to use a custom domain (anthonykeal.com.au). Yet, despite paying for the privilege each month, there are Google Home and Google Play store features that I am unable to use that Gmail users have full access to. To date, G Suite users cannot:
This means I can't add my wife as a household member or join a family music plan on Google Home. And, contrary to what I see on the advertisements, I can't ask my Google Home Mini what my agenda is for the day or call someone.
There are multitudes of frustrated G-Suite users out there trying to get Google's attention, and they are being met with radio silence. As of today, there are over 1000 comments in the comment section of the main thread related to this issue on Google's support forums.
Google's justification for this absence of functionality is one of security. To take a snippet from the above thread; a Google employee states:
"Google Home devices are designed to work best with Gmail accounts, the same with the new Google Home app. Although we can still use or link your G Suite accounts to set up the Google Home and sign in to the Google Home app, however, we will have limited access to the app and the Google Home device.
For the Google Home device, we will not be able to ask it about your personal results such as calendar events, Google contacts, and other features that require personal results.
G Suite accounts are secured business accounts that have tight security to protect its domain and database."
Now, Google state as part of their 'philosophy' on their 'Google Cloud Security and Compliance' page that "G Suite customers own their data, not Google". This leads me to believe that there must be a conflict with the legal terms set-out for G-Suite users and the functionality involved in accessing personal information such as calendars and contacts with Google Home.
Additionally, I find it strange to define users owning their data as your philosophy when it doesn't apply to Gmail users who don't pay. You can't pick and choose where a philosophy applies.
Essentially, you have to be a paying customer for Google's philosophy to apply to you, and that doesn't sit well with me.
Before researching this topic, I decided in frustration to cave and create a Gmail account to enjoy all of the benefits I was missing out on as a G-Suite user. But, after being a paid user for so long, the experience was inferior, and it didn't feel right. Ads in my inbox for one were a significant irritation and knowingly allowing Google to scan my emails (and documents and photos stored on Google Drive) to deliver targeted advertisements to me felt, to be honest, submissive. So that relationship didn't last long.
The idea behind a decentralised internet is to take power away from big tech and to put control back into the hands of users. Now I'm not an expert in this field, but I am a fan of opensource technologies and this type of system mirrors this concept. Technologies that open up their codebase to a community will benefit from better security, quality and documentation. Doug Petkanics wrote a great article in 2016 listing out six key benefits of a decentralised web:
One day, my colleague and author of Low FODMAP Cooking; Lydia Taylor sent me this article describing how the author, Nithin Coca, went about taking his digital life out of Google's ecosystem. I highly recommend that you read it as he articulates his reasons for leaving Google and lists out alternative technologies to use after much research.
On the same day that Lydia had forwarded me this article, I chose to leave Google's entire ecosystem. Here are the alternate technologies that I used:
For email, I chose ProtonMail - a free secure email system based in Switzerland that was founded by former CERN scientists. The web version of the application has been open-source since 2015, and in early 2020, their apps also became open-source.
Ultimately I lost confidence in the platform being able to fulfil my requirements and all other alternatives that I tried didn't come close.
In the end, this was a close race. However, with efficiency at the forefront of my workflow, struggling to switch between Firefox accounts, not having my favourite extensions and struggling to use Firefox's dev tools with any deal of speed, I found myself back on Chrome.
Not discovering a strong alternative to Gmail or Google Chrome was disheartening enough that I found looking for options to other Google products trivial.
Google Photos was next on my list, and I was convinced that finding something to replace it would be next to impossible. I have 5+ years of photos backed up, and I don't know of any other product out there that could top the following points:
When it comes to photos, I enjoy browsing my photos with a user-interface that compliments what I am searching for or looking at. I don't like the idea of storing them away in the cloud solution such as Box or Dropbox, never to be looked at again. So, I stuck with Google Photos.
The fact is, despite security concerns and my desire to have a decentralised internet, I enjoy Google's suite of products. They are powerful, cloud-based, feature-rich and interoperable.
I've decided that for now, staying in Google's ecosystem is still best for me, but I have a newfound passion for digital security and open-source software that has shifted my thinking.
I will continue to pay Google to own my own data, but will be vigilant when it comes to security preferences and permissions. I will also prioritise and support open-source technologies that exhibit trust factors such as transparency and community feedback moving forward, with the hope that one day, we can take back some control but maintain the ability to use such game-changing software.