Google’s motto used to be “don’t be evil,” but in the eyes of some it has now taken on the mantle of the “evil empire” from Microsoft, which Bill Gates and crew inherited from the IBM mocked in the Mac’s launch advert in 1984. The EU has fined Google €2.4bn (£2.2bn) for abusing its search monopoly by favouring its products. Most recently, Google was fined €4.34bn for “very serious illegal behaviour” in using Android “to cement its dominance as a search engine”, according to the EU’s competition commissioner, Margrethe Vestager, a charge the company contests. Google started by taking over the search engine market. It now dominates smartphone operating systems (Android), browsers (Chrome), web-based email (Gmail), online video (YouTube) and maps. It is also challenging in other areas with its cloud platform, an online office suite, Chromebooks, Waze, Nest and so on. Google is far advanced in driverless cars (Waymo) and artificial intelligence (DeepMind). Resistance is futile. You will be assimilated.
We can probably agree Google has won by delivering high-quality products, and more than 40 corpses in the Google Graveyard – soon to be joined by its awful social network, Google+ – prove it doesn’t always win. But there are other problems. First, Google now controls web development to the point where not even Microsoft can compete, as shown by the latter’s recent decision to replace its EdgeHTML browser engine with the open source Chromium on which Google’s Chrome browser is based. Users were supposed to benefit from competition between rival implementations of open web standards, but today Chromium and therefore Chrome is the standard. As Firefox-developer Mozilla has pointed out, “from a social, civic and individual empowerment perspective, ceding control of fundamental online infrastructure to a single company is terrible.”
Second, many of us have problems with Google’s business model, which the Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff has called “surveillance capitalism.” Google finances its free services by tracking users and targeting them with advertisements. It tracks you across the web even if you never visit any Google properties because other websites commonly use Google AdWords, AdMob, DoubleClick, Google Analytics, and its other tracking or advertising products. From your searches and site visits, Google probably knows more about you than your mother or your spouse, and there’s no telling where that information will eventually end up. If you use an Android phone, Google can also track your physical location, and if you turn that off, you lose directions, “find my phone” and other features. So, remember that avoiding Google products is only part of the problem. You will need to protect your privacy in other ways, too.
Easy does it
The simplest way to avoid most Google products is to switch to the Microsoft or Apple equivalents, in whole or in part. Some would see this as jumping out of the frying pan into the fire. However, Satya Nadella’s new Microsoft is different from the old one and driven by other metrics (usage instead of units). It is building a broader cross-platform ecosystem than either Google (everything online) or Apple (everything on Apple). The web-based Outlook.com email service is still not as good as Gmail, but you can use it from a desktop email client, and there’s a decent Mail app in Windows 10. There are also plenty of alternative services, including FastMail and ProtonMail.
Android smartphones are a problem because Google controls the system. However, you can run the Microsoft Launcher and dozens of Microsoft apps on Android, and connect it to Your Phone in Windows 10. Apple’s iPhones are less of a problem because they are not preloaded with Google apps, though Google does pay Apple billions to be the default search engine. Again, Microsoft provides dozens of apps for iPhones, and you can also connect your iPhone to Windows 10. Cyanogenmod, an open source ROM to liberate Android phones, bit the dust a while ago, but the project is continuing as LineageOS.
Google controls the browser market, so the best alternative to Chrome is Mozilla’s Firefox. With Opera and now Microsoft capitulating, Mozilla is the only major provider still committed to building its standards-based browser. Fortunately, Chrome’s rendering engine has open source origins – Apple forked KHTML to create WebKit for Safari, then Google forked WebKit to create Blink for Chrome – so the base code is available in the form of Chromium. This has enabled lots of companies to build browsers based on Chromium, without the proprietary stuff that Google adds to create Chrome. Opera and Vivaldi are the most obvious examples, though you should also look at the privacy-oriented Epic, among others. You will not be entirely free of Google, as you would be with Firefox, but it seems to be an acceptable compromise. Either way, I avoid using Chrome because now when you sign into a Google site, it signs you into the browser as well, unless you deactivate the feature.
Google still has the best search engine, but Bing and DuckDuckGo are viable alternatives for the majority of searches. If you can’t avoid Google search completely, you can certainly reduce your usage. DuckDuckGo is a good choice because it is privacy oriented, and you can run Google searches from DDG by using a !bang command. (A bang is an American exclamation mark.) However, DDG’s sources include other search engines such as Bing, Yahoo and Yandex. StartPage – formerly ixQuick – is a Dutch-owned privacy-protecting search engine, while Qwant is a French one. Both get some results from other search engines, but Google still won’t know about you. (Qwant seems to be pretty good.) Mojeek is a British search engine that has its web crawler, called MojeekBot. For image and reverse image searches, I recommend Yandex, which is Russian, Bing and TinEye.
YouTube kills it
Almost every attempt to avoid Google products dies a painful death when it comes to online video, where YouTube reigns supreme. There are plenty of long-running online video sites including Vimeo, Dailymotion and Facebook, but YouTube is unbeatable for its breadth of content. And there’s no way around that. There have been plenty of websites that will download the videos you want to watch without you having to go to YouTube. Years ago, I used KeepVid. However, this approach does not suit Google because you never see any adverts. Also, these sites – which could be flaky to start with – tend to stop working properly, and/or pop up multiple ad pages. The indirect approach does not suit users either because the whole idea is that you go to watch one YouTube video then get sucked into watching another dozen through random browsing.
Credit: Jack Schofield for The Guardian, 20 December 2018.