MICHAEL MULLINS. Leaving Google

Last month an Amnesty International report took Google and Facebook to task for their ‘surveillance-based business model’ that is ‘predicated on human rights abuse’. Back in 2006, I recall a colleague telling me about Google’s ‘do no evil’ manifesto. I wanted to believe it and used many of its free and paid services. Until last week. I finally decided to act after Google bought Fitbit and I realised they would own my health and fitness data from the past four years and would integrate that with everything else they know about me.

Last month an Amnesty International report took Google and Facebook to task for their ‘surveillance-based business model’ that is ‘predicated on human rights abuse’.

Back in 2004, Google’s founders expressed their corporate philosophy in their prospectus with the declaration: ‘Don’t be evil. We believe strongly that in the long term, we will be better served – as shareholders and in all other ways – by a company that does good things for the world.’

I recall a colleague telling me about the company’s ‘do no evil’ manifesto. I wanted to believe it and used many of its free and paid services over the years. Until last week.

That was when I finally pulled the plug on Google by cancelling the G Suite subscription that I’d been paying for since 2007. I was attracted to this professional version of Gmail because it allowed me to have an email address with my own domain name mullins.id.au, rather than one containing Google’s company name.

I had long thought that giving users an email address containing the name of an internet service provider was a sneaky anti-competitive way for the company to discourage users from moving on to get a better deal elsewhere. For nobody wants to change their email address or telephone number.

This applied to email addresses ending in bigpond.com, optusnet.com.au or similar, that were supplied by the telcos. It was then possible to get around this with a hotmail.com or gmail.com address that unleashed you from the telco at the expense of chaining you to Hotmail or Gmail.

I opted for the paid Google service so that I could use an address with my own id.au domain. These domains were launched by the Australian Domain Registry in 1995 but sadly never took off.

As I understand it, ‘id.au’ domains were intended to allow Australians to retain their digital identity and not cede it to the service provider. I was sold, and came to think of this as maintaining my digital ‘sovereignty’, avoiding being ‘colonised’ by the service provider.

As time went on, I learned that Google had other ways to trap me. But, more insidiously, tracking and surveillance was the basis of the ‘do no evil’ company’s business model.

I was alerted to this most acutely about ten years ago when a respected church official asked me why he was getting so many ads for porn on his screen. He was shocked when I told him that it was likely somebody was looking at porn on his computer.

As an apparent gesture to users who value their privacy, Google now offers ‘incognito’ windows in its Chrome browser that are supposed to avoid tracking. But who is naive enough to trust them?

About three years ago I discovered Fastmail, a reputable Australian alternative to G Suite. I wanted to switch from Google but was dismayed to discover how difficult they would make it for me.

For example I’d lose all the Android phone apps I’d paid for over the years, as Google policy does not allow them to be transferred to another account. It would be costly in the short term, so I stayed with Google.

I finally decided to act a month ago when Google bought Fitbit. I realised that Google would own my health and fitness data from the past four years and they would integrate that with everything else they know about me.

So now I have eliminated Google from many aspects of my digital life. I have started to use Fastmail and other services that I trust to do the right thing with my data. These include the non-profit Firefox browser, the DuckDuckGo search engine, and HERE WeGo maps. I have asserted my digital dignity.

Michael Mullins is a former editor of Eureka Street.

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Michael Mullins is a former editor of Eureka Street.

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