How to Quit Google, According to a Privacy Expert

How to Quit Google, According to a Privacy Expert

Some companies are easy to quit. If I decide I don’t like Coca-Cola anymore I can simply stop drinking Coke. Sure, the company makes more than just Coke, so I would need to do some research to figure out which products they do and don’t make, but it’s theoretically possible.

Quitting Google isn’t like that. It makes many products, many of which you depend on to live your digital life. Leaving a company like that is like a divorce, according to an expert I talked to. “It’s not easy, but you feel so much better at the other side,” said Janet Vertesi, a sociology professor at Princeton who publishes work on human computer interaction. “Think of a friend who gets a divorce and is so happy to be out. That could be you. That’s how it feels to leave Google.”

She’d know. Vertesi researches NASA’s robotic spacecraft teams and also publishes work on human computer interaction. In March 2012, after Google significantly changed its privacy policies, she decided to stop using Google entirely. Vertesi also runs The Opt Out Project, a website full of recommendations and tutorials for replacing “Big Tech” services with community-driven and DIY alternatives. She is, in other words, someone who has done the work, so I wanted to ask her for some advice about how someone should approach quitting Google.

Lifehacker has already published a comprehensive guide to quitting Google and a list of the best competitors to every Google product years ago, and that information stands up for the most part. But not using Google anymore isn’t just a technical process—it’s a massive project. Here’s some advice on how to tackle it.

Don’t switch everything at once

The first thing Vertesi emphasized to me is not to try to quit Google all at once.

“People fall off before they even try because they think it’s too big,” she said. “You can’t eat the elephant all at once; you’ve got to do it one bite at a time.”

What does that mean in practice? Choosing a single Google product and deciding to use something else instead. You could start by looking into the best Google search alternatives and trying them out for a few weeks. You could start be replacing your browser. The trick is to not overwhelm yourself.

“You can’t do it all at the same time,” said Vertesi. “You have to choose a service, get off, change your habits, then choose the next service, get off, and change your habit.”

I asked where she, personally, would start. “The easiest thing to do first is to migrate from Chrome to Firefox,” she told me, stating that she likes that browser’s emphasis on privacy and community. So switching from Chrome to another browser is a great first step, and Firefox makes the process easy, though Vertesi emphasized that researching and trying multiple browsers is a good idea—she mentioned that she also uses Brave, the DuckDuckGo browser, and sometimes even Safari.

Chrome is just one Google product that’s in your life, though. Quitting Google means making a list of all the applications, operations, and services they make and replacing them, one at a time.

Don’t just switch to another company

You might be tempted, while facing the prospect of having to slowly replace every single Google product one at a time, to instead switch wholesale to another company’s suite of apps. Vertesi advises against this.

“You don’t jump out of the frying pan into someone else’s frying pan,” she told me. This approach has a few benefits. First, it avoids a situation in which one company has access to all of your information. Second, it keeps you experimenting with new tools.

“The key thing, for me, is to have a lot alternatives,” said Vertesi. “When people ask ‘what do you use instead of Google’ I say ‘a lot of things.’”

She recommended a bunch of different tools during our conversation—Proton and Zoho for email, Dropbox and Resilo Sync for file syncing, and CryptPad for online document editing. Combining as many different tools as possible keeps your data in different places while also allowing you to choose the best tools for specific jobs.

Consider replacing your operating systems

If you own an Android phone, that is almost certainly one of the main ways Google learns about you. You don’t necessarily have to get a new phone, though—you might be able to install /e/OS instead. This is an open source operating system that’s relatively easy to install on Pixel phones and is completely free of any Google applications or influence. Failing that, an iPhone could be an option, though for environmental reasons you might want to wait until you’d replace your phone anyway.

Chromebooks are also impossible to de-Google without replacing the operating system. Vertesi recommends looking into the Linux distributions ElementaryOS, which she says is intuitive to install and use.

Or, if all of that is too hard, Vertesi did concede that Apple products tend to be better for privacy on balance. “Apple’s products are the best at being user friendly and also privacy and security focused,” she said, adding that she “doesn’t think Windows is a viable option anymore” when it comes to privacy.

Need to keep using a few Google apps? Isolate them.

I, personally, use Google Docs to coordinate with most of my editors—it’s simply an industry standard. If you’re in the same boat, needing to use Google for a couple of things, Vertesi recommends using that Google account in a dedicated browser. This helps from a privacy perspective—Google can’t use the account to track your other online activity. But it has other benefits.

“It takes some discipline, but once you’ve done that it’s better for work-life balance,” said Vertesi, explaining that keeping work in a dedicated browser helps keep you from working during off hours.

Quitting Google is a process

Google users depend on the company for all kinds of services. Google, meanwhile, depends on its users for the data it needs to sell its advertising services—the most profitable advertising business in the history of the planet. Vertesi calls this an unhealthy codependent relationship.

“Google has brought itself into every facet of our lives,” she said. “Getting out of a codependent relationship is good for you but it does suck.” But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. A lot of that is replacing corporate tools with more idealistic ones.

“I love finding products and services that are made by foundations, and communities, and companies that have an alternative arrangement—that aren’t subject to a board and VCs,” she said, mentioning Signal, Mozilla, and Proton alongside various open source projects. The point: we don’t have to focus entirely on why Google is bad; we can also look for organizations and tools we admire. That’s the good part.

Lead Image Credit: Ian Moore

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