Ethical Technology

Google Alternatives Guide: How (and Why) to Avoid Google

“Google it.” Even my technophobe grandma understands what that means, and almost everyone with experience of the internet has used the company’s services in some shape or form.

Once a humble search engine, Google has morphed into one of the biggest companies in the world. “Don’t be evil” used to be part of its corporate code of conduct, but any trace of this old motto was purged in 2018.

From Android to YouTube, it’s tough to avoid its services entirely, although it’s easy to understand why you’d want to. The following guide discuses how and why it’s a good idea to remove Google from your life.

The origins of Google

The first version of Google, designed by computer scientists Larry Page and Sergey Brin, was released on the Stanford University website in 1998. Their original mission was to catalogue and organise the many pages of the internet, and they started from a garage in California. They nearly sold the company in 1997, but competitors like Yahoo! baulked at the $1m asking price. Instead, in 2000, Google developed AdWords, enabling them to heavily monetise the platform, with this funding used to expand across a wide range of services and products over the next decade.

By the mid 2000s, Google Maps had been launched, while purchase of Android was completed in 2005. The release of Google Chrome in 2008 was soon followed by apps like Google+ (2011) and Google Drive (2012). The company pushed on into cloud computing and other ventures, cementing their status as the undisputed king of the internet.

Of course, it hasn’t been smooth sailing: Google has faced a number of accusations regarding everything from monopolisation to disrespecting user privacy. 

7 Reasons to Avoid Google

This list could have taken up twice the total word count alone, but here’s a rundown of seven of the best reasons to avoid the company. We’re open to further suggestions, so let us know what we’ve missed below!

1. Privacy

One of the most persuasive reasons to avoid Google stems from their blasé attitude to privacy. Each time you use their search function or one of their many services, you give away ever more personal information. We’re all aware that Google stores an enormous amount of data on the average user, from search history to advertising profile – however, you may not know just how sinister their data collection methods are.

For example, not only does your phone constantly ping your location to their servers throughout the day, smart lights inform the company exactly when you’ve chosen to go to bed at night. Additionally, Gmail tracks users’ purchases, and footage from secondhand Nest Cam Indoor home security cameras can still be viewed, even after being reset. If subsequent users can see the footage, Google can too.

In September 2019, Google was fined a record $170m after the Federal Trade Commission investigated how YouTube handled user data for children under the age of 13. FTC chairman Joe Simons released a statement soon after: “YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients, yet when it came to complying with COPPA [the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act], the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids. There’s no excuse for YouTube’s violations of the law.”

The only way to avoid your data being harvested is to limit usage of its platforms. 

2. Censorship

As Google controls so much of what we see on the internet, censorship is a key issue for the company. They’re aware of the delicate nature of free speech, so much so that an 85-page presentation entitled ‘The Good Censor’ was commissioned in 2018. Leaked and published online by far-right Breitbart News, the briefing gives an insight into Google’s current stance on the subject. It concludes that large tech companies “are performing a balancing act between two incompatible positions”, facing pressure from governments on one side and users on the other. Censorship requests are also noted to be rising, as shown in the image above.

Google had also reportedly been developing a censored version of their search engine for China, which would also link user queries to a phone number – a direct way of keeping tabs on individuals. The project was eventually shut down before release “after members of the company’s privacy team raised internal complaints that it had been kept secret from them.”

3. Tax avoidance

Most of the UK population will associate Google and Amazon with big companies’ tax avoidance. The story made headlines repeatedly over the last decade, with the UK press and government regularly combining to condemn the practice. It’s hard to blame them considering “Google’s UK unit paid just £6m to the Treasury in 2011 on UK turnover of £395m.” It’s a paltry sum, but has anything changed more recently? Not really:

In January 2019 it was reported that “Google moved €19.9bn ($22.7bn) through a Dutch shell company to Bermuda in 2017, as part of an arrangement that allows it to reduce its foreign tax bill, according to documents filed at the Dutch chamber of commerce.”

Despite the legality of these methods, it leaves a sour taste when considering the detrimental impact unpaid tax money has on the funding of services like the NHS, or education and the arts. Removing Google from your life will only lower their income infinitesimally, but a concerted effort from a significant portion of users could have an effect on their engorged coffers. 

4. Antitrust concerns

Google is massive, and has consequently faced allegations of monopolisation from both sides of the pond. They’ve also paid out on multiple occasions in recent years.

The EU threw the book at Google in 2018, when they found “Google violated competition rules by paying phone makers to exclusively pre-install Google search on their devices and preventing them from selling phones that run other modified, or ‘forked,’ versions of Android.” They hit the company with a $5bn antitrust fine, and Android phones are now slightly more flexible, in compliance with European regulations.

It didn’t take long for them to end up in hot water again. In March 2019, “Europe’s antitrust regulators slapped Google with a $1.7bn fine for unfairly inserting exclusivity clauses into contracts with advertisers, disadvantaging rivals in the online ad business.”

In September that year, 50 US states and territories banded together to commit to another antitrust investigation, due to concerns about Google’s impact on smaller companies. They’re hoping to send a “strong message” to the giant, but it’s hard to hurt them financially when parent company Alphabet is worth over $820bn.

5. Treatment of employees

From the outside, Google is generally seen as a great company to work for, but multiple concerns have been raised by employees in recent years. Two employee activists, Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton, organised a mass demonstration against Google, where 20,000 workers walked out of their offices to protest the handling of sexual harassment claims. A few months later, both Whittaker and Stapleton felt that they’d been made to pay for their role in the walkout. The former explained in an open letter what happened subsequently:

“Just after Google announced that it would disband its AI ethics council, I was informed my role would be changed dramatically. I’m told that to remain at the company I will have to abandon my work on AI ethics and the AI Now Institute, which I cofounded, and which has been doing rigorous and recognized work on these topics. I have worked on issues of AI ethics and bias for years, and am one of the people who helped shape the field looking at these problems. I have also taken risks to push for a more ethical Google, even when this is less profitable or convenient.”

Stapleton was told she was going to be demoted, despite being a high performer in her sector. After failed attempts to escalate to HR and her vice president, Google suggested she go on medical leave, despite having no illness. She eventually had her role reinstated after lawyering up.

It could be a series of coincidental circumstances, but it’s easy to see why they feel penalised for their role in the demonstration. Either way, not a good look for Google.

6. Pushing AMP

I quietly ignored AMP when it first arrived on the scene. “Accelerated Mobile Pages” tended to load quickly on my phone, although it was annoying if I quickly copied a link only to see a weird AMP version on my desktop.

A range of privacy experts penned a letter discussing their problems with the Google project: “AMP keeps users within Google’s domain and diverts traffic away from other websites for the benefit of Google. At a scale of billions of users, this has the effect of further reinforcing Google’s dominance of the Web.”

Considering that Google already controls much of what is seen and heard online, this is a worrying development. 

7. Google’s changeable ethical stance, and AI concerns 

The ethics of AI is a delicate subject, one probably deserving of its own article. Of course, Google is heavily invested in AI, and has released a list of principles and objectives for their applications. They’ve committed to staying away from weapons tech, but admit “we will continue our work with governments and the military in many other areas. These include cybersecurity, training, military recruitment, veterans’ healthcare, and search and rescue.”

While their technology won’t be used to actively kill people, it would be preferable for Google to ensure their AI development is safe and ethical. They launched the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC) in 2019 to work on developing AI responsibly, but it was forced to close just a week later. More than 2,000 Google employees signed a petition criticising the company’s selection of one of the council members, Kay Coles James, who The Guardian reported “has a history of fighting against trans rights and LGBT protections, has advocated for Trump’s proposed border wall, and has taken a vocal stance against abortion rights.”

Arguably not the best person to comment on ethical issues.

Ethical Google Analytics alternatives:

Google Analytics, originally launched in 2005, is a platform used to track and report on website traffic, and accounts for a significant share of the online analytics market.

It’s free to use, though of course you’ll be handing Google even more of your data if you do so.

If you are planning to record website traffic, it’s best to have a transparent policy about any data you collect, so we’ve listed a couple of great ethical alternatives below:

Plausible

Plausible is marketed as a simple, lightweight alternative to Google Analytics. Their script is 14 times smaller, which should mean quicker load times, and key information is stored on a single page. It’s open-source and available on GitHub, and is committed to giving the user full ownership of their data. It’s great if you’d prefer a minimalist approach, and also emails users a weekly report including key stats like “pageviews, visitor numbers, top pages and top referrers for the week.”

Countly

Countly is an analytics platform that offers a chunkier experience than Plausible. You’ll still find all relevant information on a single dashboard, but with additional detail about everything from custom actions to tracking individual sessions. Countly gives the user full control and ownership of their data. It’s a UK-based company, but all  employees work remotely.

Fathom

Fathom Analytics provides “simple, useful website stats” without tracking or storing personal information about its users. Instead, it collects data about trends and insights, so there are no ethical ramifications about optimising your website traffic. Everything is available via a single screen, and it’s “built on modern, cloud-based technology.”

Ethical Google search alternatives: 

Their quintessential service, the Google search bar, helped the company to grow into the behemoth we all know today.

After a $5bn fine for the way Google promoted apps on the Android OS, the company allowed different search engines to be installed as default apps on their devices in Europe. They did so to meet EU regulations, but by proposing an auction, with the spots going to the highest bidder, their methods still raised eyebrows. 

Ethical search engine Ecosia released a response, saying that it would “not be taking part in Google’s revenue-making auction. We are calling on Google to cease damaging, monopolistic behavior. Android users deserve the option to freely choose their search engine, and that choice should not be auctioned off to the highest bidder. Google has chosen to give discrimination a different form and make everyone else but themselves pay, which isn’t something we can accept.”

Ecosia

Given their strong stance, it’s only fair that we add Ecosia to our list of recommendations. It uses ad revenue from searches to plant trees, so are hard to ignore if you’re looking for an ethical option. Founded in 2009, the browser is completely free, and the company aims to bring reforestation to those who need it most. To date, it has planted over 69 million trees and counting, as well as helping coffee farmers in Colombia and protecting orangutan habitat, among other projects.

DuckDuckGo

DuckDuckGo is a nifty alternative search engine with none of the worrying privacy problems associated with Google. Your IP address isn’t stored, and your user information isn’t logged – meaning search results aren’t skewed by your history, and your browsing data is private. DDG is customisable, with options and themes like Dark Mode. It’s also popular, as they record 1.3bn searches per month. It takes time to disconnect from Google’s web, but DDG makes the switch painless. 

Searx

Searx is a metasearch engine that aggregates results from 70 other search websites. You can filter results via the Advanced Settings button under the search bar, and change the date and location of your query. Files, images, and videos can be searched separately, and there are tabs for Music, Maps, News, and Social Media. As with DDG, Searx doesn’t create user profiles, so don’t share personal data with third parties. It’s also free and open source, and results are constantly improving.

Ethical Android alternatives: 

Google acquired the Android mobile platform in 2005 for a reported fee of $50m. It was released in 2008 to great success, and proved to be an inspired purchase, Android currently being the most popular mobile OS in the world, having held this crown since 2011.

In 2018, the European Commission found that Android had used their mobile OS illegally to “cement its dominant position”. They fined the company $5m, and threatened to charge “further penalties of up to 5% of its average global daily turnover” unless changes were made.

Despite being less draconian than main competitor Apple, it’s better to look for a truly ethical option, such as the following:

Purism Librem 5

The Purism Librem 5 is marketed as a mobile phone “for anybody and everybody interested in protecting his/her data, communicating privately to your loved ones, or supporting a future of protecting your digital rights.” That’s pretty much everybody, and Librem has kept its promises. It’s built with PureOS, an open-source operating system not based on either Android or iOS. It’s the perfect choice if you’d like to stay away from this traditional duo, although it is expensive at $699. It was due for release in September 2019, with the first batch shipped out on the 24th.

Ethical YouTube alternatives:

YouTube is the largest video sharing website in the world, with content on almost every topic uploaded constantly. The platform has faced a variety of issues over the years, despite being popular enough to give bigger content creators full-time jobs. As with Android, it was acquired by Google for $1.65bn in 2006. YouTube is now another cornerstone of its services, but has been subject to problems and issues from uploaded content to censorship. You won’t be able to find another video platform with a bigger potential audience or as much on offer, but there are still a number of good ethical options available.

PeerTube

The most similar ethical alternative has to be PeerTube. Financed by French non-profit organisation Framasoft, it’s a “decentralised video hosting network, based on free/libre software.” In plain English, PeerTube is a network with many different hosting providers, and you’re free to join or host your own. PeerTube UK is an example of a network it’s possible to join. In practice, it has a similar layout to YouTube, and since it was only released in October 2018, expect more features and updates in the coming months.

Flix Premiere

If you’re more interested in content, Flix Premiere is a platform for watching a range of award-winning independent films. Signing up is free for the first month, and it’s available on a range of smart devices. The Guardian did call it “the Lidl of indie cinema” – but the German supermarket does offer good value for money…

Ethical Chrome alternatives:

It’s entirely possible that you’re reading this right now on Chrome. It’s another Google service that’s a leader in its field, somewhat justifiably. Personalised results make it easier to find what you’re looking for – but every interesting entry is liable to be added to your advertising profile in some shape or form.

Removing yourself from Chrome will go some way to curbing the data Google can collect about you, so we’ve listed a couple of great privacy-focused alternatives below:

Tor

The Tor browser is well-known in privacy circles, as it blocks third-party ads and trackers while you’re online. Despite being blocked by some mobile internet providers, it’s perfectly safe, and the nonprofit’s mission is to “advance human rights and freedoms by creating and deploying free and open source anonymity and privacy technologies”. Tor was used to great effect by protestors during the 2010 Arab Spring, although the privacy features have seen it used for sale of illegal drugs and distribution of paedophilic images. In cases like these, the company will work with law enforcement agencies to apprehend those involved. 

Firefox

Mozilla’s Firefox was briefly the second-most-used web browser, before being surpassed by Chrome in November 2011. At the time, Firefox was noticeably slower when loading pages, and took up a lot of memory. Though eventually overtaken by the lightweight Google Chrome, Firefox has improved massively in recent years. TechRadar rated it fastest web browser in a May 2019 report, so it’s worth checking out on that basis alone. Firefox is also completely free to use, and runs on open-source software.

Ethical Gmail alternatives:

Gmail is Google’s free email service, launched in 2004. It currently has roughly 1.5bn registered users, each with 15GB of storage.

Gmail has great anti-spam features, but this comes at a significant price: Google clarified their position in 2014, saying “our automated systems analyse your content (including emails) to provide you personally relevant product features, such as customised search results, tailored advertising, and spam and malware detection. This analysis occurs as the content is sent, received, and when it is stored.”

You can learn a lot about a person if you have access to their email account, so we’ve listed a couple of privacy-focused alternatives to Gmail below:

ProtonMail

ProtonMail is a Swiss end-to-end-encrypted email service protected by the country’s substantial privacy laws; your data can’t be shared with third parties, and no personal info is required to open an account. ProtonMail is an open-source project, and basic accounts are always free. It can be used without installing any additional software, and there are apps for iOS and Android to complement its web version. The company “[does] not have access to the contents of emails on [its] servers thanks to zero-access encryption”, while its paid plan vastly upgrades storage, as well as allowing for a custom domain name.

Tutanota

Another open-source, end-to-end-encrypted option, Tutanota claim to be “the world’s most secure email service”. However, they do collect metadata that includes sender, recipient, and the date of the message. Free, with 1GB of storage allocated to private users, its email systems are powered by green energy. The business version of their website is donated to non-profit organisations, and iOS and Android apps are available for mobile devices. You can check out the roadmap listing a range of upcoming features here.

Mailbox.org

Mailbox.org offers a combination of email and cloud storage from €1 per month. Powered by eco-friendly energy, with servers located in Germany, it was released in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations in 2013, providing a “secure, ad-free, anonymous, and tracking-free email service”. The company goes the extra mile to ensure eco-friendliness, using options like public transport or car-sharing for travel, and renewable energy in their offices. The Mailbox.org client is available on mobile and desktop, and comes with a packaged cloud office suite which can be used for editing documents and sorting out appointments via an address book.

Fastmail

Fastmail is a privacy-focused company, taking aim at competitors like Gmail and Outlook with their premium service. Giving the user “complete ownership and control of their data”,’ calendars and contacts, as well as email, are available via one app. All users will have an ad-free experience, while extra features like your own email domain, or extra online storage, can be purchased. A 30-day free trial means you can give it a try if you’re not sure about paying for an email address. They argue that the “companies that monetise your data owe you a lot more than a ‘free’ account for what they get!”

Ethical Google Drive alternatives:

Google Drive is a file storage and synchronisation service with over one billion users worldwide. Google Docs are seen as an industry standard for many companies, as it allows anyone with an account to create, edit, and share documents and spreadsheets. It includes 15GB of space for storing files and images, but this is shared across Gmail and Google Photos. Though highly functional, it is susceptible to spammers.

The Google Drive terms of service promise not to use or share “your files and data with others except as described in our Privacy Policy”. In turn, the privacy policy states: “We use the information we collect to customise our services for you, including providing recommendations, personalised content and customised search results. Depending on your settings, we may also show you personalised ads based on your interests. For example, if you search for ‘mountain bikes’, you may see an ad for sports equipment when you’re browsing a site that shows ads served by Google.”

So though it’s free, some of your information may be used for anything from personalised adverts to general improvements to the service. If you’re worried about the privacy of your Google Drive data, here are a couple of alternatives:

LibreOffice

LibreOffice, an offshoot of OpenOffice, created by non-profit the Document Foundation, is a completely free and open-source office suite, available for Windows, Mac, and Linux.  It includes a range of apps analogous to Google Drive’s word processor, spreadsheet and presentation programs, plus many others. It’s also highly compatible with Microsoft Office apps, and has a similar interface to the popular MS service. There’s no real-time co-authoring, but another alternative is available if that’s a make or break feature: 

Etherpad

If you’ve used Google Docs, you’ll know how handy it is to be able to collaboratively edit a project in real-time. Etherpad is an open-source online editor with good functionality and customisation options, developed by volunteer contributors on GitHub. As you can see from the image above, it’s easy to colour-code different parts of a document to different authors, and there’s a chatbox for talking things out. Interestingly, Etherpad was originally a Google competitor when first released in 2008, but were quickly snapped up by the giant. The software was acquired and discontinued, but was later released as open-source in 2009 following an “outcry from users”.

How to avoid using Google

Google search is easy to avoid, but it’s near impossible to avoid all their products and services if you spend any amount of time online. Business is business, but they might have a stake in everything from the phone in your pocket to documenting your online shopping habits.

Escaping Google’s web is a tough task, but the least you can do is ensure you’re giving them less personal info than they would like. Their apps and services are well made, but it’s down to you to decide whether that’s worth the ethical trade-off.

We’d welcome any suggestions for apps that we haven’t covered, or additional ways to keep your data safe from Google. Check out our list of resources and organisations if you’d like to find out more!

Resources: Organisations

Internet Society (link)
Privacy International (link)
Reclaim the Net (link)
The Document Foundation (link)

Resources: Further reading

  • ‘Google Will Always Do Evil’ (link)
  • ‘How Tech Companies Deceive You into Giving Up Your Data and Privacy’ (link)
  • Reddit: ‘r/degoogle’ (link)
  • ‘Google AMP Can Go to Hell’ (link)

Featured photo by Reza Rostampisheh on Unsplash

Author

James is a journalism graduate/freelance writer from London, who specialises in sports and technology. He has a particular interest in tech for good, and in his spare time he enjoys playing video games.

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