SAN FRANCISCO – In the small South Carolina town of Newberry, Bob’s Red Mill muesli cereal is hard to come by.
That presents a challenge for resident Gregory Kelly, who can’t get enough of the stuff. He’d rather not truck the 40 miles or so to Columbia to stock up on it, but he’s also loath to buy it from the company’s website, which he says is riddled with tracking software from Google.
His privacy being paramount, Kelly grudgingly chooses to head into Columbia every so often, rather than cede his data to Google or turn over his purchase history to another online retailer. “I’m just not sure why Google needs to know what breakfast cereal I eat,” the 51-year-old said.
Kelly is one of a hearty few who are taking the ultimate step to keep their files and online life safe from prying eyes: turning off Google entirely. That means eschewing some of the most popular services on the Web, including Gmail, Google search, Google Maps, the Chrome browser, Android mobile operating software and even YouTube.
Such never-Googlers are pushing friends and family to give up the search and advertising titan, while others are taking to social media to get the word out. Online guides have sprouted up to help consumers untangle themselves from Google.
These intrepid Web users say they’d rather deal with daily inconveniences than give up more of their data. That means setting up permanent vacation responders on Gmail and telling friends to resend files or video links that don’t require Google software. More than that, it takes a lot of discipline.
People like Kelly are trying to build barriers to Google and other tech giants largely due to increasing concerns about the massive data collection. A series of privacy scandals showing how these companies collect and use consumer data has raised alarm bells for many people about how much they’ve traded for customization and targeted ads. For example, a Washington Post investigation last month found more than 11,000 requests for tracking cookies in just one week of Web use on Google’s Chrome browser.
As a result, more consumers are taking measures to wrest greater control of their personal data, like deleting Facebook and its photo-sharing app Instagram. About 15%of U.S. households’ primary shoppers never shop on Amazon, according to Kantar ShopperScape data. Some Amazon Echo and Google voice-activated speakers have landed in the trash. And some consumers are saving photos and other personal documents to external hard drives, rather than on Google or Apple’s clouds.
Brands are jumping on the trend, advertising what they say are superior privacy controls. At the CES 2019 tech conference this year, Apple promised in a billboard above Las Vegas that “What Happens on Your iPhone, Stays on Your iPhone,” though many apps siphon data from the phones and track users. And DuckDuckGo, a privacy-oriented search engine, said daily average searches have grown to 42.4 million, from 23.5 million a year earlier — although still a small fraction of Google’s.
Over the past few months, Jim Lantz of Spokane, Wash., has been systematically eliminating Google products from his online life, spurred by reports of how the Silicon Valley company collects and distributes customer data. That’s included scanning lengthy privacy agreements and researching websites’ legal statements. “It’s quite the challenge figuring out what they own,” said the wholesale sales manager.
“I don’t want to give up every ounce of myself over to Google,” he said. “At least I can make it hard for them.”
Google in May unveiled new features it said would help users protect more of their data, including storing more of it on personal devices rather than in cloud computing centers, and giving people more control over how and when tracking software, or cookies, is deployed. And the Web search giant is offering ways to permanently erase data, including search and location history.
No data on how many consumers may be phasing out Google is readily available, and the company didn’t provide figures on how many have deleted its apps. “We want to help people understand and control their data, even if they want to leave Google,” said spokesman Aaron Stein. He pointed to Google’s service allowing consumers to download information stored with the company for their use elsewhere.
Joshua Greenbaum of Berkeley, Calif., said he pays about $100 per year to use Microsoft Office 365 software that he says has better privacy protections than Google’s. “I am giving up more than I am getting” from Google, said the 61-year-old tech consultant who started scaling back his Google usage a couple of years ago when advertisements began appearing in his Gmail account.
“With Gmail they get your e-mail, with Android real-time location and app usage, with Maps more location data, with Google Wallet that can see into your finances, with Google Docs your personal and work history, Chrome gives your online history, your location,” Greenbaum said. “I started asking myself what other data could they get to.”
All that consumer data is precisely the reason Google may be in the cross hairs of the Justice Department, which this year took initial steps toward a potential antitrust investigation, the Post reported. The House is preparing its own probe of Google and Facebook amid comments from President Donald Trump that the government should be “suing” them.
Users say that it’s difficult to eliminate using Google completely. Greenbaum still maintains a Gmail account “for spam,” he said, and finds that YouTube is all but unavoidable if he wants to watch videos online.
For him, “the improvement is mostly in the category of self-righteousness,” he said.
Not so for Janet Vertesi, a Princeton University sociology professor, who in her private life has avoided Google since 2012. She said it’s a matter of being able to control her own data, which Google automatically shares across its many properties. Data collected in Gmail, for instance, is supplied to the mapping software, whether a consumer uses Google Maps or not.
“I want to know where my data goes,” Vertesi said. That sometimes involves asking people to turn off their voice assistants in their homes or re-send documents in a format other than Google Docs, she said.
Tech firms like Google say the data helps drive more personal advertisements, which are beneficial to consumers, and underwrite products that would otherwise not be free, like e-mail and photo storage programs.
The European Commission this year fined Google $1.7 billion over allegations that the company thwarted rivals from working with other companies that had deals with Google.