De-googling

I have an inherent mistrust of all concentrations of power. They say that "power corrupts"[1], and while that may be an over-simplification of what actually goes on, there must be something to it. It’s all too easy for things to start going awry wherever power is accrued. It’s not that all powerful entities are bad — entities of any size can be bad. It’s that, if you’re not careful, you will sooner or later find yourself caught up in the jagged teeth of the power’s machinery and get shredded to pieces, one way or another.

This is why I worry about Google. As a coder and technology enthusiast, I find much to admire in the company — they have built some awesome stuff, and they have some brilliant people — but we’ve all read horror stories of some machine learning algorithm gone wrong arbitrarily locking users out of their Google accounts, in the absence of any wrongdoing, without any possibility of recourse. I personally know of people[2] who have lost access to a decade of email and troves of valuable Google documents and photos of great sentimental and business value. You might lose access to a popular YouTube channel, or cloud computing resources that you use to run something critical.

For most people, there is no hope of such a situation being rectified, unless you’re a journalist or internet celebrity with a large presence on a non-Google platform. Often the story goes that the victim reached out to a friend at Google, but they were unable to do anything because Google’s sheer size means that the even an internal escalation can’t hope to be effective; there are simply too many employees, and far too many users. A quick Google search (oh, the irony) will quickly yield examples, but to save you some time, here’s a Hacker News thread from a little over a year ago that is representative.

Google is not alone in wielding this power or operating at this kind of scale — similar anecdotes can be found related to Apple, Amazon, Dropbox, Facebook Meta, and many others — but Google is probably the most oft-cited example, and it so happens that it is the one I’ve been most worried about. Apple could lock me out of some music, movie, and app purchases; Amazon could keep me from reading the stuff on my Kindle; Facebook could stop me from seeing photo albums that I have available in other places at higher quality anyway; Twitter could bar my access to its splendiferous displays of unparalleled dysfunctionality; but all that would pale in comparison with what Google could do to me if it decided it wanted to "start seeing other people". As such, over the last few years, I have taken a series of small steps to try an mitigate the damage that I might experience if I were suddenly to be locked out of all Google properties.

Gmail

Back in late 2020 I moved to Fastmail. I spoke about my motivations and gave my early impressions at the time, and not much has changed: Fastmail is, er, fast, it’s robust, the settings UI is clean and easy to use, the contacts and calendar apps are adequate, and the iOS app is pretty darn good.

Importantly, Fastmail is not free: I consider this a feature, not a bug, because it means that if something ever went wrong I could have a reasonable expectation that I could talk with an actual human being — not just because it is a paid service, but also because the customer base isn’t mind-bogglingly large — to get the issue resolved.

Needless to say, I’ve long had a handful of custom domains (not at Google Domains, of course, but at Namecheap). They used to be pointed at Gmail and now they’re pointed at Fastmail, so losing my email account forever was never the concern. But it is comforting to know that I don’t have to worry about an incident with my Google account stopping me from getting an important account-related message sent to me via email.

Google Drive

I used both Google Drive and Dropbox for a while, but migrated to Sync.com a couple of years ago. Once again, not free, but that’s a feature and not a bug. The company is small enough that when I need support (which has been once in the last two years), I can open a ticket and have a dialog with an actual human being. The big selling point of Sync is that it is end-to-end encrypted, and while that’s nice, I think its other headline feature — namely, the fact that it isn’t Dropbox — is equally important. The UI on the web interface and the macOS client is a bit ugly, but the stuff that matters (ie. syncing) works well, and the client doesn’t have a million unwanted features and intrusive upsells, and it doesn’t peg the CPU just to get its job done. As a nicety, it seems to handle symlinks in a relatively reasonable way.

Chrome

I used Firefox for a while in an attempt to get away from Chrome, but the scroll feel was just so gratingly annoying that I couldn’t stick with it and went crawling back to Chrome’s loving embrace. But I’m currently trying Edge instead. It’s effectively Chrome in Microsoft clothing, and you may argue that running from monopolistic Google to monopolistic Microsoft isn’t much of an improvement, but one doesn’t have to pursue "de-googling" with a fanatical zeal in order to reap some benefits. By using Edge, I’m continuing to enjoy the good things that come from Chromium, and I’m distributing some of my eggs from the basket of one impersonal, faceless software empire, across into another such basket. And given that I work for GitHub, that means I work for Microsoft, transitively speaking, so I may as well get a little bit cozy with my corporate benefactors from Redmond. Edge has sync, an iOS client, and other niceties like, did I mention, sweet vertical tabs, implemented natively and not as a bolt-on third-party extension?[3]

Search

Google has been getting some bad press lately about the worsening quality of their search results, and alternatives are popping up like Kagi and DuckDuckGo. I think there is some truth to this talk of deterioration, but I’ve tried DuckDuckGo and Bing and my subjective impression is that even the decadent, crumbling version of Google search is still the best option out there; it’s just that I have to sieve through the results a bit more to find what I want. I’m not so concerned about Google tracking me because I’m prepared to cede a little bit of privacy to them in exchange for getting the best results in the fastest way (they already know my blood type, shoe size, and most frequently googled Stack Overflow questions, after all); but having said that, if there were a faster, higher-quality alternative that was just as comprehensive and offered better privacy, I’d very happily switch to it, even if it wasn’t free. This is a space I’ll be monitoring as time goes by.

The rest

All of this represents some diversification, but is it enough? Probably, for the time being. I still have a small number of useful and valuable Google docs that I would be bummed to lose access to, but I have a scheduled Google Takeout set-up that lets me at least download a snapshot every so often. In reality, the main Google-held asset I have to worry about now is my YouTube channel, which has 9.5K subscribers, and I would be sad to lose, but the truth is that I could live without it. There’s always Twitch, anyway.


  1. Specifically, Lord Acton is said to have originated the remark, in its less abridged form: "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…" ↩︎

  2. People who I know from my 8 years living and working in the San Francisco Bay Area: people enmeshed in a network of folks coming and going through the revolving doors of all the big tech companies — Twitter, Uber, Facebook, Apple, and of course Google itself — and who had contacts there. ↩︎

  3. This takes me right back to the 1990s, which was the first time Microsoft held the "Best Browser on MacOS" title, with Internet Explorer for Mac; I think I installed it off the cover disc of some magazine or something… ↩︎