9 July 2012
Last updated at 20:42 ET
Google’s reach spreads far across the web. But is it possible to go online without being noticed by the search giant? Three computer professionals try to part ways with Google.
Tom Henderson spends what he describes as “way too much” time online.
The managing director for Extreme Labs, a technology company in Bloomington, Indiana, Henderson says he’s often up late in the evening doing work for clients – and having fun exploring the far reaches of the internet.
But when Google announced earlier this year that it would be streamlining the privacy agreements for all of its products – including YouTube, Blogger and Gmail – Henderson decided to find a way to stay online without patronising Google.
The policy was criticised by EU officials for being too invasive.
“At that point I had to make a decision,” says Henderson. “Do I like the terms of service and am I willing to abide by it to use Google’s products? And the answer in both cases was no.”
So Henderson decided to quit Google for good. He wrote a manifesto for IT World called “How I divorced Google” and set about initiating the break-up.
Four months later, he’s still living a mostly Google-free existence.
Google’s terms of service state that the information it collects is used primarily to make the browsing experience better.
They firm also promises to share that information only in limited circumstances, unless users give consent.
But Henderson wasn’t satisfied that the policy could be enforced, and didn’t feel confident that the sheer amount of information Google can collect wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands.
“Google isn’t subject to an audit of what those practices are,” he says. “They’re not telling whether they sell that info to insurance companies or people who want to market to you or people who don’t like you at all.”
So rather than hope for the best, he started to live his life without Google.
Though he still misses YouTube, he asked his son, a musician, to cross-post his music videos on Vimeo. He uses MapQuest for directions. And instead of “Googling,” he now uses a platform called Duck Duck Go, a search engine designed to protect privacy.
Henderson isn’t the first person to try to abandon Google products out of privacy fears. But he’s stuck with it longer than most.
“After a month, I decided it was mission impossible,” says Benjamin Ellis, a technologist living in Camberley, England.
In 2009, he tried to give up Google after a friend “held up his Google-branded phone to take a picture that will probably end up on a Google-powered photo site, indexed by Google search-bots, published on Google-powered blogs, with Google-powered ads, viewed in Google-built web browsers, maybe even on a Google-built operating system.”
“I realised pretty quickly that you had to go to extreme lengths to avoid interaction with Google,” he says.
He found that his contact with Google went well beyond the active choices of viewing videos on YouTube or using the search engine.
Google planted tracking cookies when he visited sites that used Google’s AdSense, which used his personal preferences to tailor ads to his liking.
Ellis was also being exposed to cookies via Google SafeBrowsing, a product that keeps tabs on sites known to run malware. That program is now used on Safari and Firefox web browsers as well as Google’s Chrome browser.
“It was hard to find any that didn’t use either of those. It’s a massive chunk of the internet,” he said.
(Henderson, for his part, uses blockers that prevent Google from tracking his browsing).
Ellis says he’s back to using Google products, but has become more careful about his browser’s privacy settings and the type of programs that he agrees to give data to. Though the UK has stricter online privacy laws than the US, Ellis is still proactive about his internet footprint.
“I have much stricter settings on my cookies now,” he says. “I’m a bit more conscious.”
Embracing a Google lifestyle
Not everyone who tries to walk away from Google ends up wary.
Take Joe Wilcox, the editor of BetaNews.com, a technology news site. In 2011, he too was worried about privacy, and tried to shun Google for at least a week.
“It went so badly that I went the other way. Now I’m a total Google geek,” he says.
Wilcox says that Google’s size and scope has led to great products and break-neck innovation. “They’re constantly improving their services and making it better. I like that lifestyle,” he says.
He’s not bothered by the cache of data Google collects about each user. “There’s no evidence that they’re abusing your privacy,” he says.
Instead, he points to ways it can make browsing easier – for instance, the new product Google Now, a predictive service which is promoted as being “always one step ahead” of the user.
Google Now uses personal data and GPS information to determine users’ routines and preferences. The program can send Android phone-users traffic updates, weather warnings and restaurant recommendations.
“It flips the script. It doesn’t take your information and [mis]use it, it takes your information and makes your experience better,” says Wilcox.
In the digital age, he argues, there is very little privacy. With that in mind, Wilcox says he’d rather deal with a large, visible company like Google than other less-known entities.
“At Google, I get more of a sense of what they know about me than some other companies.” he says. “That’s a different kind of trade-off.”