Over the past two years, I’ve been switching between a succession of iPhones and a series of Android devices, using each for an extended amount of time. Spending months with each mobile platform has been a tremendously useful exercise, helping me understand the strengths and weaknesses of the two dominant smartphone options.
But every time I pick up one of those Android devices, a nagging question pops up in the back of my mind. It’s the same one I hear from friends, family members, and readers every time the topic turns to smartphone platforms: “Aren’t you worried about your privacy when you run Google’s software?”
It’s a legitimate question, and there’s no easy answer.
Google, like Facebook, has a business model that’s built on surveillance. The company’s stated mission of “organizing the world’s information” also includes capturing as much as possible of your information. That information is the base layer of some undeniably useful services, which in turn fuel the advertising that makes up the overwhelming majority of Google’s revenue.
In the first six months of 2019, Google took in just over $75 billion in revenue. More than 84% of that revenue, about $63.3 billion, came directly from the advertising platform made possible by data collected from a few billion people, including you and me.
To be fair, Google provides ample privacy controls, including options to delete saved data. They also count on most people being too busy, distracted, or unconcerned to actually use those controls. And even if you meticulously delete your activity history. there’s not much you can do about the profile that Google and its subsidiary DoubleClick (and the advertising ecosystem that’s grown up around them) create based on those activities in real time.
We won’t even talk about the antitrust investigations in the United States, where Google is reportedly “in serious trouble,” and another antitrust probe in the European Union, which has already fined Google multiple times for anticompetitive behavior.
Unlike the other giant of online advertising, Facebook, the option to delete your Google account isn’t very practical. It’s hard to imagine a world without Google’s outsized influence, but it is possible to rebuild your personal online environment around an alternate set of services and experiences.
There are plenty of options from smaller third parties, but for the most part the replacements for the Google services you know come from Apple and Microsoft. Those two tech giants have the requisite scale, but their business models don’t rely disproportionately on data collection and advertising. When your revenue comes mostly from high-margin hardware (in Apple’s case) and business-focused productivity services (in Microsoft’s case), it’s easier to place greater value on personal privacy, and there’s less incentive to design products and services that explicitly turn data into revenue.
So how do you reduce the role of Google in your tech life? I took a look at my own experience to see where you’ll find the most interesting alternatives. Note that some of these options require paid subscriptions, in contrast to Google’s ad- and data-supported services.
Say adios to Android
There are two and only two mobile device platforms that matter: Android and iOS. As a result, ditching Google means learning to love Apple hardware and software. Because of the way Google licenses Android, it’s almost impossible to find a device that isn’t loaded with Google services. And although you can tweak and tune privacy settings and replace default apps, you can’t easily get rid of the Google Play services and store.
Switching to an iPhone isn’t exactly painful (except perhaps for the pricetag). You get world class hardware, and you also avoid one of Android’s worst flaws: unpredictable updates.
Apple devices get fully supported updates for years, and you are not at the mercy of a carrier to get the latest version. That support lasts a long time, too. The iPhone 6S, for example, which debuted more than four years ago, runs the brand-new iOS 13 and will be supported for another year. You can’t say that about any Android phones released in 2015.
In fact, even new devices often have to wait, sometimes forever, for upgrades. I have three Android phones on my desk right now, from Motorola, Samsung, and Google. All three devices were released in 2018, but each one is running a different Android version (8, 9, and 10). I have no idea if or when those two phones running out-of-date Android versions will get the latest features.
And I have to say I trust Apple’s biometric support more than I trust the same features on Android devices. A pair of snafus involving biometric technology this week, on the latest premium devices from Samsung and Google, make me even more comfortable with switching platforms.
Choose an alternate default web browser
If your objective is to cut ties with Google, you’ll need to choose a different web browser than Google Chrome, naturally. The logical alternatives are Mozilla Firefox and Opera; on MacOS and iOS, you can also choose Safari.
Several people in the comments section have recommended the Brave browser, a relatively recent addition to the category, led by Mozilla co-founder Brendan Eich and focused relentlessly on privacy. I tried Brave when it first came out and will take another look. It’s a strong contender.
The dark horse in this field is Microsoft’s new cross-platform Edge browser, based on the open-source Chromium engine. (I do not recommend the current Edge browser, available only in Windows 10, which is deprecated and will probably be replaced within a year.)
The most relevant feature is tracking protection, which offers this simple but easy-to-understand interface in the new Edge Settings pane on the desktop.
How effective is it? Click that Blocked Trackers link to see a running count. On this browser, the number-one source of trackers is Google, which accounts for more than 20% of the blocks on my production PC.
Although it’s technically in a beta release, the new Edge browser has been extremely stable on Windows 10 for me; it also runs on MacOS and has versions for iOS and Android. It allows you to install extensions directly from the Chrome Web Store, and pages you visit look like they’re running in Chrome.
Pick a privacy-focused search engine
The Bing brand is an easy punchline for anyone trying to get some cheap tech-oriented laughs, but the underlying data is no joke. In its just-concluded 2019 fiscal year, Microsoft brought in more than $7.6 billion in revenue from search advertising. That’s a fraction (less than 10%) of what Google makes, but it’s still a very big business on its own; that revenue makes it the fifth biggest division at Microsoft, one of the only companies big enough to compete with Google on this playing field.
But you don’t have to insert yourself into Bing’s advertising ecosystem, either. The privacy-focused DuckDuckGo (“the search engine that doesn’t track you”) returns results using Microsoft’s data along with a few hundred other primary sources,
For desktop use, you can also get the DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials extension for Chrome (which works in the Chromium-based Microsoft Edge as well).
In the comments, several readers have recommended Startpage.com, a Dutch company that uses Google search results repackaged in a privacy-focused format that eliminates tracking.
Replace Google Voice
I’ve always been reluctant to use Google Voice for any serious business-related purpose, because it seemed like yet another free service that Google would eventually kill off. One plausible theory I’ve heard is that Google Voice is so widely used by Google execs that discontinuing it is not an option.
Google Voice has the twin benefits of being device-independent and supporting SMS messages. That means you can use a virtual number other than your regular mobile phone number for security-related tasks, like two-factor authentication. That makes SIM-swapping scams dramatically less effective.
Google Voice also runs on multiple devices, which is handy for someone who switches devices regularly. Not having to reconfigure 2FA when you switch to a new device is liberating.
I can’t find a free alternative to Google Voice that I can comfortably recommend, but the venerable Line2 service, at $10 per month (or $99 a year, billed annually) fills the bill. YouMail, a call-blocking and voicemail service, includes a second line with SMS support as a standard feature on its $10.99 per month YouMail Professional products. I’ve used it for several years and recommend it.
Use something other than Gmail as your default email client
I’m old enough to remember when Gmail was a closed beta and you had to have an invitation to get your own account. In retrospect, we should have gotten a clue that something was amiss when the Gmail beta launched, officially, on April Fool’s Day, 2004. (Not a joke. DuckDuckGo it.)
Back in 2017, Google stopped its controversial practice of scanning the content of free Gmail accounts for the purpose of targeting ads, and the company says any processing it does of message content (to generate reply suggestions, for example) is done by machines. And, of course, paid GSuite business accounts have always been disconnected from Google’s ad infrastructure.
The main reason I don’t use Gmail, though, has nothing to do with privacy. It’s just that I really really don’t like the browser-based interface on the desktop, where I do most of my serious email work. Alas, that’s how Google wants its customers to use Gmail on PCs, and Gmail developers don’t seem to care that their service doesn’t play well with other clients.
For business accounts, I use Office 365, and most of my personal accounts are on Outlook.com. If your employer uses Gmail, you’re not free to switch, but for personal mail it’s easy to set up a new default address, forward messages from Gmail, and hardly skip a beat.
For paid business email, there are third-party alternatives if you’d rather avoid working with Microsoft directly. I recommend Intermedia, which offers hosted Exchange and Office 365 with a much less intimidating interface. Many hosting providers offer email options to go with your custom domain; for example, you can get Office 365 subscriptions from GoDaddy, with or without a hosting package. It pays to check with your current hosting provider.
There’s certainly no reason to delete your Gmail account, but switching to a new default email service doesn’t have to be painful. Back in 2013, I made the case against Gmail and wrote detailed instructions for switching from Gmail to Outlook.com. The basic principles haven’t changed in all that time.
Get off of Google’s cloud
Some of Google’s stickiest services are its cloud-based storage and collaboration tools: GSuite (Docs, Sheets, Slides), Google Drive, and Google Photos.
Office 365, which includes a terabyte or more of OneDrive storage with every subscription, is the logical alternative to GSuite and Google Drive. Earlier this year, I did a comprehensive comparison of the two services, “Office 365 vs G Suite: Which productivity suite is best for your business?” Read that for a quick refresher on what makes Office 365 different from GSuite.
You can also choose from a wealth of independent cloud storage providers, including well-known services like Dropbox and Box and others that are less well known but technically superior, like Intermedia’s SecuriSync, which is available bundled with email and Office or as a standalone product.
Google Photos is a harder service to replace. For the basic task of backing up and organizing your digital photos, both Apple (iCloud) and Microsoft (OneDrive) offer options to upload photos from the default camera roll on your mobile device to their respective services. OneDrive is the clear choice if you also want those photos to be accessible on a Windows 10 PC.
But no one quite does the AI-powered magic that Google does with Photos. Just be aware that all that magic also feeds Google’s insatiable appetite for data.
Consider Apple’s Maps app
In its early days, Apple’s Maps product was clearly inferior to Google Maps. That’s no longer true, and Maps now plays the same counterweight-to-Google role on iPhone that Bing plays to Google Search. Location tracking is one of the key privacy concerns of our time, so it’s worth at least trying to make the switch.
For those who decide Apple Maps is not good enough, though, you have no credible alternatives to Google.
How do you solve a problem like YouTube?
If you’re a YouTube fan, there’s virtually no way to avoid having your activities tracked by Google, with the inevitable algorithmic recommendations not far behind.
And there’s nothing quite like YouTube on the planet. You can avoid some tracking by using your browser’s private/incognito mode, but that’s at best a partial fix.
Do you see any options I missed? Use the contact form to send me your thoughts via email, or share other alternatives in the comments section below.
Related and previous coverage