Multiple bloggers and tech journalists have pointed out that 2018 was the year the public's relationship with Big Tech companies soured considerably. Credit Facebook's constant bungling of user privacy and similar blowups elsewhere around Silicon Valley for that "accomplishment."
I'm certainly glad to see increased awareness among everyday users regarding some tech companies' abuses. But it also strikes me most users still don't quite know what to do about it personally as they go about using their devices each day.
In the spirit of proactively fixing that problem, below are a few quick tips I'd offer to get started kicking oligarch-sized tech companies out of your life, short of holing yourself up in a cabin in Idaho. These are all relatively small steps, based largely on my own effort to phase out as many products as possible from tech's "Frightful Five" over the last year-plus. (That's New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo's colorful shorthand for Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.)
Everything here is meant to be achievable by non-geeks, and I mostly avoid the biggest one-time leaps people might make, like quitting Facebook cold turkey. (Although I did that myself in early 2018 and do highly recommend it, if you're feeling more adventurous.) These are all meant to be small achievable ways to mitigate your privacy-related risk online.
I don't claim these tips are silver bullets by any stretch, that they'll protect you from the Five's abuses (or those of other companies) 100 percent. But I would say these changes will leave you significantly better off privacy-wise and give you a basis to keep improving upon, kaizen style, in 2019.
- Use DuckDuckGo for daily search. I've set this engine, which doesn't track users for ad targeting like Google does, as the default for all my desktop and mobile browsers. After more than a year as my daily workhorse, I'll testify it works just fine. I'm never going back, period.
- Install and use Signal on your phone for text messaging. This app, which encrypts your messages from end to end, is pretty revered among privacy nerds. Available for both iPhone and Android. Bonus points: It's produced independently, unlike WhatsApp, which does do encryption but is owned by Facebook. Which brings us to...
- If you're going to #DeleteFacebook, remember to leave Instagram and WhatsApp as well. These apps are also both owned by the House that Zuck Built – a fact everyone in Silicon Valley knows but that I think a lot of "normals" still aren't aware of. If you truly want to be free of Facebook as a company, you should really nix these other two apps as well, as famed tech journalist Walt Mossberg recently did,
- Use Flickr's Creative Commons feature. As a general principle these days, I try to support underdog apps that compete with ones from the Five. It's just a little step to support market competition, which is good for me and other consumers. The photo service Flickr is one of my favorites in this category, as it supports an option to openly licensing the photos I upload. Using this feature – which Instagram doesn't even offer – I can support other creative folks around the web.
- Register your own web domain. A longtime staple move for anyone who wants to claim more control over their online identity, this is still a great idea in 2019. I use Hover to register most of my domains, but there are a bunch of other registrars out there if you prefer or want to compare prices, et cetera. Once you have a domain, you can use it to publish your own website or even just create email addresses for it. Speaking of which...
- For God's sake, dump Gmail already. They offer a "free" service in exchange for READING ALL YOUR FRICKIN' EMAIL. Does this really still sound like a good deal to you, after everything else that happened in 2018? C'mon now, people... My staple email addressses these days are both hosted on domains I own via Hover, which also provides my email hosting. Even in 2019, I'll vouch it's still pretty badass to other people when you own a personalized address like peter[at]indizr.com or peter[at]pmckay.com. But there are literally hundreds of other options for your email, including free ad-supported underdogs that at least aren't Gmail. Shop around.
- Use an RSS reader to aggregate news. My daily workhorse in this area is Feedly, which offers both free and paid options with premium features. The beauty of getting your news via RSS – whose death was greatly exaggerated a few years back when Google killed its RSS app Reader – is that it's a simple reverse-chronological listing of the latest stories from the publishers I follow. No algorithmic "secret sauce" like you get under the hood of Facebook and other proprietary social networks who have done so much to undermine global democracy as we know it for the sake of selling more ads. No thanks, guys. I think I'll "downgrade" to avoid those ad-centric algos.
- Use DigitalOcean instead of AWS. If you are going to self-host your own website, the New York-based startup DigitalOcean is a great alternative to the mighty Amazon Web Services. As a bonus, it advertises on a bunch of popular tech-news podcasts, so I like to pay it forward by patronizing them in return for all the great journalism and commentary I get for free.
- Use Matomo for site analytics. I use this open source alternative to Google Analytics for the Indizr website. It works great, including a bunch of privacy- and transparency-oriented advantages that the big boys don't offer.
- Use a laptop or desktop PC as your primary computer. A very general guideline here, based on my observation that the iOS and Android duopoly on mobile operating systems is much more locked-down than the PC world, which essentially took shape in the '70s and '80s. It's like Apple and Google took the move to mobile as an opportunity to "correct" all the mistakes they made allowing users more power on PCs back in the day. To me, these devices still work just fine and generally offer more transparency and customizability than I can get on mobile. So, yeah, count me out of the industry-promoted notion that your phone or tablet should replace your PC.
- Buy a PC with Linux pre-installed. Of course, PC's do have their own OS duopoly going, with MacOS and Windows. These systems are somewhat less locked-down than the mobile alternatives, in my opinion. But if you want to avoid the PC operating system duopoly as well, you could get a machine that comes pre-installed with the open OS Linux. My main laptop is just such a machine, made by System76, and it works great for my daily needs. Several other manufacturers, including Dell and Purism, also make PCs that run Linux out of the box.
- Install Facebook Disconnect in your browser. This browser extension, available for both Chrome and Firefox, disables something called the "Facebook pixel" on the websites you visit, hampering the company's ability to track what you read even when you're not on their site. If you're not going to leave Facebook altogether, I'd highly recommend at least this more modest step to limit their surveillance.
- Read physical books. Put a stick in the eye of You Know Who.
- Download literary classics for free via Project Gutenberg. In my opinion, this open literary project ranks up there with Wikipedia as one of the greatest things about the internet. It is literally impossible to download the great books for free on Amazon, as Project Gutenberg enables us to do. Because, you know, Amazon is hurting for money. Try it yourself if you don't believe me.
- Shop at your local supermarket. Yes, Prime is convenient, but admit it: You know it's killing your neighborhood economy just a little bit every time you use it. Maybe it's time to re-think that trade-off.
- Turn your phone's location services off by default. When an app really needs them to do something for you, it'll ask. I get a prompt to turn location on, for example, every time I want to use Lyft. And that works just fine. But when I'm not using Lyft or a similar service, there's really no need for my phone to be tracking me all day long.
- Download and use LibreOffice for offline productivity. An open source alternative to Microsoft Office.
- Use Zoho cloud applications. This Google Apps competitor isn't openly licensed, but it does fit squarely in the category of viable market underdogs. Competition ftw!
- Use GIMP for photo editing. An open alternative to Adobe Photoshop, which isn't exactly a Frightful Five app but, geez, it's locked-down, proprietary, and expensive. So I'll give it honorary status on this list. For the typical user who isn't a professional photographer – a use case I really can't vouch for personally either way – the surprisingly full-featured GIMP should work just fine as a substitute. Regularly gets the job done for me for me as a website owner just doing basic cropping, straightening, color adjustment, et cetera.
- Kill your "home speaker." Another product category that might look viable on paper but is utterly insane in the mass surveillance society we actually live in. There are a bunch of other ways to play your digital music – ones not bundled with an always-on, Internet-connected microphone installed by a Frightful Five company with a terrible privacy record. Use one of those other options. Any one.
That's it for now. I know I rambled a bit here, but this is something that's been on my mind awhile. If you have other ideas to #DeFive your life, please tweet them to me.