In middle school and throughout high school, I watched the rise of the first smartphones. Apple wowed my tweenage brain with the first iPhone. At the age when I and most of my peers were first getting on social media, the ability to check Facebook on the go was the killer app to end all killer apps.
Being the contrarian little shit that I was (and still am), I was eagerly following the news that Google would soon unveil their own competitive operating system. Android launched soon after. It was mind-blowing; the market had finally delivered an answer to Apple’s smug and self-assured iOS.
In my eyes, Google could do no wrong. In the coming years, I signed up for my first Gmail account, watched the launch of Google Drive, navigated myself around using Google Maps, and spent hours watching videos on YouTube. But, after using so many of their services for so long to do so many different things, I found myself reflecting on just how much of my digital life was controlled by Google. I began to fear what would happen to me if Google just up and vanished one day.
In addition to my fear of a vanishing Google, I also became increasingly wary of just what Google was doing with my data. I’m not an idiot; I’m familiar with the terms and conditions of the products that I’ve signed up for. At first, I was okay with Google mining my every search and email for advertising purposes; that’s the price I paid for the convenience and use of a “free” service.
As I came into my own financially, I realized that decentralizing my digital life was not only possible, but fairly cheap. Here’s how I left most of Google’s services, and how you can too.
After ordering Google Takeout, I knew that Gmail was the first that had to go. Almost every single online service that I use (all ~50 of them) had my Gmail associated with it. Updating my email address for all of these services was without a doubt the most arduous part of the entire process of leaving Google.
The replacement: ProtonMail
I know run all of my email out of ProtonMail, an alternative web mail provider hosted in Switzerland. For $7 a month, I have unfettered access to my email wherever I go. This includes an Android and iOS app, and the ProtonMail Bridge (in beta) to hook my account into Outlook. As an added bonus, all email to and from approved domains is automatically end to end encrypted. So in addition to leaving the world’s largest data miner and reclaiming my data, I’ve moved to a set up where it is theoretically impossible for my provider to data mine my email.
The replacement: DuckDuckGo. Training myself to not use Google search was fairly painless when compared to ditching Gmail. I use DuckDuckGo as my daily driver, and I only dip into Google whenever I have some extremely specific technical problem.
I couldn’t entirely leave behind Android, as it runs my smartphone. So I had to do the next best thing and “cripple” it as much as possible. I flashed a new image of LineageOS on it, and didn’t install any of the default Google apps. Instead, I replaced the entire Google Play Services Framework with microG and the Mozilla Location Backend.
The one little hang-up with this set up is that I no longer have access to the Google Play Store. So for any application that can’t be found on F-Droid, I have to go to the Yalp Store using fake credentials. This isn’t ideal, and it doesn’t work 100% of the time, but now no email account of mine is associated with my phone.
Google Maps was not a terribly hard one to replace.
The replacement: OsmAnd~. OpenStreetMap and its companion navigation app have come a long way since I tried to use it last summer while in Washington, DC. You could bring up the map and see which direction you were pointing, but actual navigation left a lot to be desired. However, just last week I made a 60+ mile trip using only OsmAnd~ to guide. I’m completely sold on it now.
I cannot stress enough just how good OpenStreetMap is getting. I was really worried that I was going to have to revert to printing directions and carrying them with me if OsmAnd~ failed. If anything, the finely-detailed map in OsmAnd~ outclasses Google Maps when you’re looking at neighborhoods that you’re familiar with.
While not as absolutely crucial as Gmail and Maps, the handful of notes that I kept in Keep were things I definitely didn’t want to lose.
The replacement: Dropbox Paper. Dropbox’s new “collaborative document” system works great as a note-taking app. I can simply open the app and jot down whatever I need to remember.
Hand in hand with leaving Keep for my notes came leaving Drive for my documents and other storage. At one time, Google Drive was my tertiary backup for all things important (Hi, senior honors thesis!). Luckily, migrating everything to Dropbox was completely painless.
The replacement: Dropbox.
I love Google Photos. High quality backups of all of my photos has been a godsend whenever I want to just aimlessly scroll through the past two or so years of my photos. I initially didn’t even mind that Google was using my photos to train their machine learning algortithms. But, nothing good can last, so I just turned on photo backups in the Dropbox app.
The replacement: Dropbox.
Google Contacts and Calendar
I’m lumping these two together because I found and elegant solution that handles both.
The replacement: Radicale. A complete CardDAV and CalDAV server, a Radicale instance sits on this website at an undisclosed port. Go ahead and scan for it; you can find it really easily. Behind a simple user name + password authentication scheme sits my synchronized calendar and contact list.
Setting up Radicale was a little more involved than I would have liked, but I am glad that is working as intended. When ProtonMail gets Card and CalDAV support I’ll likely move everything over there for the sake of simplicity.
So what has leaving the Googolplex cost me? In total, $7 a month and about a dozen hours of my time. This is not a bad trade off when measured against the liberation of my data from Google and the measurable gains I’ve made in privacy and security. In the future, I would like to migrate from Twitter to Mastodon and then migrate from Facebook to nothing at all. Social media has completely ruined modern politics and discourse and is the next big enemy in the never-ending war to regain a handle on my digital life.