When Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989, his objective was simply to meet the demand for automated information-sharing between scientists in universities and institutes around the world.
Fast forward to the present day and the purpose of the Internet seems to be for tech giants such as Google, Facebook and Amaz*n to harvest as much personal data from people as possible.
You may ask yourself, why is receiving personalised content based on our interests and habits bad? As my Mum-in-law put it the other day “What are they going to do, sell me more stuff?”.
Unfortunately, the ‘attention economy’ stretches far beyond selling us tat we don’t need. Beyond ads, your Google account profile will serve you tailored content including:
- Search results
- YouTube recommendations
- News stories
- Apps, movies and books in the Google play store
All of which can influence you in some way. When discussing digital privacy, people sometimes say to me it’s actually helpful that Google serves tailored content. The problem really lies more in when Google’s algorithm learns enough about you that it can start telling you what you want!
Reading the tech news on any given day provides no shortage of stories about mega-corporations misusing people’s personal data, whether it’s manipulating your behaviour and mood, influencing political opinions, sowing social division or simply keeping you distracted (You can learn more about this by watching The Social Dilemma documentary).
Even as I write this, Google’s AI division DeepMind faces legal action over it’s misuse of private NHS data in the UK.
Frankly, we’re in a mess and we could all benefit from a little less Big Tech in our lives.
I’ve spent the last few years reducing my reliance on Google products and wanted to share my progress in case you want to do the same.
As always, it’s not about completely de-Googlising your life immediately, but if you can make even one switch, you’re making progress!
The easiest swap you can make is to stop using Google’s Chrome browser.
With more and more people choosing to block tracking cookies on websites (if you don’t, you should!), Google are currently looking to make the market-dominant Chrome track users’ behaviour within the browser itself instead. You can read more about their ongoing FLoC trials (perfect if you’re struggling to nod off at night).
In short, you’re better off getting rid of Chrome, and there are plenty of better options:
- Brave is essentially a privacy-focussed Chrome. It blocks tracking scripts by default and has a built-in ad blocker.
- Firefox also has more default privacy settings as well as giving more options for users to manage their data. Also check out Firefox Focus on smartphones which can delete your history in a single tap.
- For Mac users, the default Safari browser also blocks tracking scripts. It’s questionable just how much you can trust another tech giant such as Apple with your data, but at this point they feel like the lesser of two evils.
Switching from Chrome to a privacy-focussed browser is a win-win. Not only will it stop Chrome tracking your movements within the browser, you’ll also block other third-party tracking scripts (such as Google Analytics or Google Ads scripts) when visiting websites.
Google Search alternatives
Whilst Google Search is the undoubtedly dominant search engine with over 93 per cent of the UK market share, there are many fantastic ethical alternatives that won’t add your search history onto your digital profile.
- DuckDuckGo is an increasingly popular search engine, processing nearly 99 million search queries a day (up from 52.95 million a day in February 2020). All without tracking anyone’s search history.
- Ecosia is another ethical search engine alternative. They plant a tree roughly every 1.3 seconds in return for people using Ecosia as a search engine. As of October 2021 they have planted over 135 million trees.
I have to admit that this is difficult, especially if you’ve been using Gmail to subscribe to different services and mailing lists over many years.
For personal email these days I use a private account that runs off the mail server of the PJWD website. I’ve been slowly switching over my various subscriptions.
If you’re not ready to ditch your Gmail, you could consider turning off the Smart Features (like how it automatically organises messages into tabs). In theory this could offer some protection against the Gmail AI, although I’m not convinced this is actually true.
You can also clear out your old emails so Google can no longer scan the content of them to add to your online profile.
I recently deleted 12 years of emails from my Gmail account. It was trippy.
Ethical Google Analytics alternative
As well as protecting your own data from the tech giants, you will also want to protect the privacy of people who visit your site.
Google Analytics is used on roughly 57 per cent of all websites. Whilst a useful tool for measuring your website traffic, it also tracks tonnes of your visitors’ personal data and feeds that back into the Google hivemind.
Even Apple’s default Safari browser (currently used by 33 per cent of people in the UK), treats Google Analytics as an advertising script and blocks it by default. This means the data Google Analytics collects is not nearly as accurate as it used to be, making its insights less reliable.
In 2020, I started using Fathom Analytics, a privacy-focussed analytics software that does not track the personal data of your website visitors. I have have not looked back.
Learn more in my review of Fathom Analytics vs Google Analytics.
Locking up your Google Account
Properly escaping Google’s clutches is hard. Really hard. Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’s even possible to function on the internet without a Google account (if you have done this, I’d love to hear from you!).
However, you can at least lock down your account somewhat to limit the amount of data you share.
Within the privacy settings of your Google account, you can ‘pause’ tracking for your web history, YouTube history and location data.
It’s something, at least.
Deleting your YouTube history
Remember in 2011 when you watched a video of a dog in a hat, and The Algorithm (TM) has been recommending hatty dog videos to you ever since? It makes sense to regularly delete your old YouTube history. Privacy aside, do you really want to video suggestions based on your interests from many years ago?
Deleting your Google Maps data
This is your kindly reminder that Google knows everywhere you’ve been since you bought a smartphone. Don’t believe me? Check in your Google account settings for a timeline detailing your travel history! Here you can delete your location history and pause future tracking.
As an extra step, you can also turn off your phone’s GPS when you’re not using it.
Check for other Google services
There has been no shortage of Google products and buyouts over the years so it’s worth having a dig around your account settings. For example I found a 12-year-old Blogger account. Whilst looking through it was a fun trip down memory lane, having this online no longer served a purpose. I deleted it to reduce the environmental impact of my online life.
Read more tips for reducing your digital carbon footprint.
Google Drive & document sharing
When sharing documents with collaborators and clients, I now upload them to my own web server and share the link via email. I also use a custom-made ‘notes’ section in the admin area of my website to share collaborative text documents, effectively private draft pages that that be edited by both me and my collaborators.
Whatever storage system you use, remember to regularly delete documents that are no longer in use.
Other digital privacy tips
- Don’t log into a website using your Google account (or Facebook or whatever else) as this will feed all your activities right back to them.
- Always reject cookies if you get the option.
- Clear out your browser history and cookies regularly.
- Ditch the tracking scripts from your website.
You can find more privacy focussed alternatives to Google products at Switching.software.
For more digital privacy tips also check out Protecting your digital privacy.