Goodbye, Google

Episode Summary

What if a technology company becomes so rich, so powerful, so exploitative, and so oblivious that that the harm it's doing begins to outweigh the quality and utility of its products? What if that company happens to run the world's dominant search, advertising, email, web, and mobile platforms? This month's episode of Soonish argues that it's time to rein in Google—and that individual internet users can play a meaningful part by switching to other tools and providers. It's half stem-winder, half how-to, featuring special guest Mark Hurst of the WFMU radio show and podcast Techtonic.

Episode Notes

What if a technology company becomes so rich, so powerful, so exploitative, and so oblivious that that the harm it's doing begins to outweigh the quality and utility of its products? What if that company happens to run the world's dominant search, advertising, email, web, and mobile platforms? This month's episode of Soonish argues that it's time to rein in Google—and that individual internet users can play a meaningful part by switching to other tools and providers. It's half stem-winder, half how-to, featuring special guest Mark Hurst of the WFMU radio show and podcast Techtonic.

* * *  

Back in 2019, in the episode A Future Without Facebook, I explained why I had decided that it was time to delete my Facebook account. In short, I was tired of being part of a system that amplified hateful and polarizing messages in order to keep users engaged and drive more advertising revenue for Zuckerberg & Co. 

I knew at the time that Google also engages in such practices at YouTube, and that the search giant's whole surveillance capitalism business model rests on tracking user's behavior and serving them targeted ads. But I continued as a customer of Google nonetheless, while keeping one eye on the company to see whether its tactics were growing more toxic, or less.

The moment when Google finally exhausted my patience came in December 2020, when the company fired a prominent Black computer scientist and AI ethicist named Timnit Gebru in a dispute over a scholarly paper she'd co-written. Gebru and her co-authors argued in the paper that without better protections, racial and gender bias might seep into Google's artificial intelligence systems in areas like natural language processing and face recognition. Google executives thought the paper was too harsh and forbade Gebru from publishing it; she objected; and things went downhill from there.

It was a complicated story, but it convinced me that at the upper echelons of Google, any remnant of a commitment to the company's sweeping motto—"Don't Be Evil"—had given way to bland and meaningless statements about "protecting users" and "expanding opportunity" and "including all voices." In fact, the company was doing the opposite of all of those things. It was time for me to opt out. 

How I went about doing that—and how other consumers can too—is what this episode is all about. I explain the Gebru case and other problems at Google, and I also speak at length with guest Mark Hurst, a technology critic who runs the product design consultancy Creative Good and hosts the radio show and podcast Techtonic at WFMU. Mark publishes an important site called Good Reports, where consumers can find the best alternatives to the services offered by today's tech giants in areas like search, social media, and mobile technology.

Hurst emphasizes—and I agree—that leaving Google isn't an all-or-nothing proposition. The company is so deeply embedded in our lives that it's almost impossible to cut it out entirely. Instead, users can uncouple from Google step by step—first switching to a different search engine, then trying a browser other than Chrome, then switching from Gmail to some other email platform, and so forth.

"Setting a goal of getting ourselves 100 percent off of Google is is unrealistic," Mark says. "And it's I think it's a little bit of a harmful goal, because it's so hard that people are going to give up early on. But instead, let's let's have a goal of learning what's happening in the world and then making some choices for ourselves, some small choices at first, of how we want to do things differently. If enough of us make the decision to extricate ourselves from Google, we'll form a movement and other companies will see an opportunity to build less exploitative tools for us. You've got to start somewhere!"


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Chapter Guide

0:08 Soonish theme

00:21 Time to Find a New Favorite Restaurant

02:46 What I'm Not Saying

04:01 Re-introducing Mark Hurst

07:08 The Ubiquity of Google

11:04 Surveillance Capitalism and YouTube Extremism

12:29 The Timnit Gebru Case

18:01 Hurst: "Let's shut down the entire Google enterprise"

19:48 Midroll announcement: Support Soonish on Patreon

20:54 10 Steps toward Reducing Your Reliance on Google

29:04 Using Google Takeout

30:20 The Inevitability of YouTube

31:44 Be a Google Reducetarian

32:20 Enmeshed in Big Tech

37:04 The Value of Sacrifice

40:17 End Credits and Hub & Spoke Promo for Open Source

Episode Transcription

Audio montage: We can have the future we want, but we have to work for it.

Wade Roush: You’re listening to Soonish. I’m Wade Roush.

What if I told you that your favorite neighborhood restaurant or pub tries to trick you into ordering food you don’t really want, and spies on you after you leave?

What if I pointed out that the TV behind the bar is always tuned to salacious or inflammatory programs designed to grab your attention and make you stay and order a few more drinks?

What if you learned that this restaurant uses its buying power to put other restaurants out of business and keep new ones from opening?

And what if it turned out that every time one of this restaurant’s workers speaks up about these bad business practices, they get instantly fired?

You would probably stop eating at this restaurant. You’d vote with your fork and you’d go somewhere else.

Well, for me, Google is that restaurant.

And I’m fed up with the way the search and advertising giant manipulates our attention, stifles competition, and sidelines minority voices.

So about five months ago, I decided to stop using Google’s products and find alternatives wherever I could. 

It turns out that’s a little harder than just walking out of one restaurant and going to another one down the street.

In the physical world, there are plenty of places to eat. 

In the digital world, Google has a near monopoly in the search and advertising business. It also dominates in mobile operating systems, web browsers, video streaming, and email platforms.

From a consumer’s point of view, it’s like living in a city where a single company owns 90 percent of the restaurants and sells 75 percent of the cars and owns 74 percent of the movie theaters and also has a contract to operate most of the libraries and post offices. 

That would be a pretty dystopian place to live. But that’s a pretty good analogy for the extent of Google’s power on the internet.

But there are still some alternatives to Google. I’m using some of them myself.

Later in the show I’ll explain a bit more about why I’m so disappointed in Google and why its founding motto, “Don’t be evil,” is starting to sound so ironic.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came last winter when Google fired a Black computer scientist and AI ethicist named Timnit Gebru for doing exactly what they had ostensibly brought her in to do in the first place, which was to think critically about the company’s artificial intelligence efforts. 

But before we get to that I want to make a couple things clear. First off, I still think Google is a remarkable company. 

I know a lot of people who work there or have worked there in the past. Most of them are super smart folks who just want to use technology to make the world better. 

The problem is, the products they’ve built work so well they’ve created a juggernaut that crushes everything in its path. 

Also, it turns out that Google’s main business model is toxic for democracy. So, there’s that.

But the second thing I want to make clear is I’m not necessarily trying to persuade you to get Google out of your life.

I just want to show that it’s possible. And maybe give you some ideas and options if you do decide to give it a try.

In that sense this episode is a sequel to a show I made in 2019 called A Future Without Facebook.

I explained in that episode why I decided it was time for me to quit Facebook. 

I didn’t try to hide my own views about how Facebook is damaging our society. But I wasn’t trying to guilt anyone into quitting.

I was much more interested in getting people to think about the looming presence of the big tech companies in our lives. And how we should feel about that. And most importantly, what we can do about it.

Now, if you remember the Facebook episode you may also remember one of the guests from that show, Mark Hurst. 

Mark runs a product design consultancy in New York called Creative Good. And he’s the host of a terrific radio show and podcast from WFMU called Techtonic. 

And when he sees the big tech companies making decisions that are bad for democracy or hostile toward customers, he is an absolutely fearless critic.

So I called him up to talk about Google.

Wade Roush: I want to start off by asking you about Good Reports, which is an offshoot of…your larger effort at Creative Good, but it's a place where people can go to figure out what are the alternatives to some of the services and products they get from the big, big tech companies, right?

Mark Hurst: Yeah, it started when I put together a little booklet, actually, as part of my radio show with WFMU, I put together a tips booklet because listeners would often ask, well, if I am supposed to get off Google, like you say, where am I supposed to go? And so I put a little tips booklet together of the best web browser and the best e-mail, the best search engine, that sort of thing. And then I realized, as I put it together, there's so many more tips that I'm coming across than I can fit into a printed booklet. So I launched Good Reports as a as a catch all site where I can post all of the pointers to actually good tools out there that don't engage in surveillance capitalism. They're not captured by big tech yet.… It's And it's just my attempt to point people to all of the alternatives to Google and other big tech services that they can and should switch over to.

Wade Roush: Mark, what would you say is the behavior you're trying to enable or encourage?

Mark Hurst: Well, the problem right now … if you're going to search, you're going to use Google because that's that's what everybody does. It's the default choice. If you use a Web browser, you're probably going to use Google Chrome. If you use email, you're probably going to use Gmail. … and if you use social media, it's it's either going to be Facebook or Instagram, something owned by Mark Zuckerberg. And these default tools, um, tend to be really harmful both to the users individually and their communities, and as we see democracy under threat worldwide, it's these tools are harmful on a global scale. And so the behavior that I'm trying to encourage is for people to look beyond the default and learn about better, less harmful tools that are out there and then put in a little bit of effort to switch over to those tools. Um, and it's it's generally not very difficult to go through this process. It just takes a little bit of time. So with Good Reports, um, I'm trying to make it as easy as possible for people to learn what the options are, why they should switch and how they should switch.

Wade Roush: And Good Reports is divided up into kind of product categories like Web browsers, email platforms, mobile devices, all these categories. One of the difficulties, though, is with Google is that it crosses a bunch of these categories. As you just said, if you're if you're an average consumer, without realizing it, you could pretty easily wind up using Google Chrome as your browser. You could wind up using Google itself as your search engine, Gmail as your email provider, Android as your mobile operating system, you know, YouTube as your video platform…So. Getting Google out of your life actually isn't all that simple because you have to think about all of these different kinds of services you use and how to extricate yourself from each one of them separately.

Mark Hurst: Well, I would push back on that framing just a little bit. Everything you said there, Wade, is true and accurate. So I don't mean to dispute anything you just said. But I think there's a better way of framing this, which is that we shouldn't think about getting completely free of Google or removing Google completely from our lives, at least as an initial goal, because, as you say, that is incredibly difficult….We're not doing people any favors if we make it seem so difficult to get off of big tech. Baby steps, Wade, let's let's start with some easy things people can do. And you do them one at a time. Um, I mean, people can stop using Google search like that. It's so easy. You just don't use Google search anymore. You go to either DuckDuckGo or I have several options on the search engine page at Good Reports and just start doing your searches through a different search engine. It's free and it's easy. And once you see that you didn't die, the Internet still works. You're getting good search results. It's OK. And you have some sense that you're being tracked less, then you might want to try something as a as a follow on step. Maybe you want to try downloading a different browser so that you start weaning yourself off of Google Chrome. But but it's a process and it may be, Wade, that you're right, that we can never get 100 percent off of Google, that that may be the case, but it's worth taking some basic steps to lop off big chunks of Google's influence and and see where it takes us.

Wade Roush: At the moment, DuckDuckGo is the top recommended alternative search engine at Good Reports, and I just wanted to ask whether that's your preferred search engine and do you find that DuckDuckGo works just as well as Google used to for you?

Mark Hurst: Yeah, yeah. All of these recommendations are Good Reports, they're my own personal recommendations. And I'm able to function fine, Wade, my search queries are met just fine. And maybe someone else out there will say, well, I have a very specific query that I need a different search engine for. And I understand there are some edge cases where Google or maybe some other alternate search engine might be a better choice. But once again, just getting people aware that there are alternatives and getting them to try out some alternatives, whether it's DuckDuckGo or Ecosia or Qwant or any of the others, that's a big step. I'm just trying to get people to look beyond these default toxic services from the big tech companies.

Wade Roush: I also switched to DuckDuckGo at the beginning of this year, and I agree with Mark. It does everything a search engine should do.

And in a minute we’ll explore some of the other tools that you can use as alternatives to Google’s products.

But before we get too far ahead or ourselves, let me explain why I decided that it was time for me to quit Google.

For years, I’d been concerned about some disturbing trends at Google.

I didn’t like the way the company tracks our search histories and then uses these digital files called cookies to follow us around on the Web and show us ads related to our search terms. 

So many people were creeped out by that practice that Google agreed to stop using cookies on its Chrome browser by 2022. But it’s going to replace those cookies with a different profiling technology that’s potentially just as invasive.

But the problem that scared me the most was with Google’s video sharing subsidiary YouTube. 

There’s a pile of evidence these days that the recommendation algorithms built into YouTube have helped to radicalize users by pulling them farther and farther into a universe of crazy conspiracy theories.

These algorithms determine which videos appear on the “up next” list alongside whatever video the user is watching right now. 

They’re responsible for 70 percent of the time people spend YouTube, which means, of course, that they also drive 70 percent of YouTube’s advertising revenue.

From all the coverage I was reading, I was pretty convinced that these algorithms were amplifying the racism and far-right extremism that made the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections so contentious and that culminated the January 6 insurrection.

And then something else happened.

Bloomberg TV clip: Still ahead, the controversy surrounding a top AI researcher. Google says she resigned. She says she was fired. Timnit Gebru joins us to tell us her side the story, next. This is Bloomberg.

Link TV Clip: In related news, Google employees are demanding senior leadership reinstate prominent Black researcher Timnit Gebru, who alleged she was fired earlier this month after arguing tech companies should do more to ensure gender-biased and racist language are not exacerbated by artificial intelligence systems.

Wade Roush: So, if you’ve seen the recent Netflix documentary Coded Bias, you know that there’s a problem in AI research right now called algorithmic bias.

It’s one of the challenges that can crop up when you program software to recognize patterns, such as words, or faces, using machine learning.

The only way to get machine learning algorithms to recognize anything is to train them over and over on existing data, and tell it yep, that’s an eye, yep, that’s a nose, or nope, that’s not a cat.

But let’s say you’re teaching an algorithm to recognize faces, and your training data is scraped from the Internet and consists mostly faces of white people. 

In that case your algorithm probably isn’t going to be very good at identifying Black people.

And let’s say those algorithms wind up being used in law enforcement. 

It’s not hard to imagine how software that misidentifies one whole segment of the population could help amplify the same biases that have already led to so much police violence against Black people.

Timnit Gebru was one of the experts featured in Coded Bias and she’s spent her career documenting the risks built into certain forms of machine learning. 

Including both face recognition and natural language processing, or NLP. 

That’s one of the technologies that powers virtual assistants like Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant, and you won’t be surprised to hear that Google has built some of the most powerful NLP algorithms in existence.

Gebru was the technical co-lead of Google’s Ethical AI team. And in 2020 she co-authored a paper for a computer-science conference arguing that language models like Google’s that were built on gigantic datasets could too easily wind up reflecting the gender or racial biases present in the original training data.

Google executives who reviewed the paper thought it was too harsh and they asked Gebru not to publish it.

What happened next is disputed. But it comes down to this. 

Gebru sent her managers a letter where she asked to know which managers at Google wanted to keep the paper from being published and threatened to resign unless she got that information. 

Gebru says she wasn’t actually resigning, just demanding some information. But Google looked at that letter and said, okay, resignation accepted.

A few months later, Google also fired Margaret Mitchell, the other co-lead of the Ethical AI team, allegedly for searching through corporate email account to find evidence that Gebru had been unfairly targeted.

Now, we can argue all day about whether Gebru’s threat to resign was the same as an actual resignation or whether Mitchell misused her email account. 

But what’s clear is that the episode shocked and disturbed many Google employees. More than 1,500 of them signed a petition demanding that Gebru be re-hired.

Which Google hasn’t done. But Google’s AI chief Jeff Dean did acknowledge in an internal email that the company regretted the way the incident had led some Black and female technologists to, quote, “question their place here,” unquote. 

He also said that Google, quote, “should have handled this situation with more sensitivity,” unquote.

But the central point remains. As soon as the leaders of Google’s Ethical AI team turned a critical lens on Google itself, the company decided it didn’t need them around. 

And to me, that’s the kind hypocrisy and tone-deafness that you’d expect from some autocratic regime in Eastern Europe, not from a Silicon Valley tech company that controls some of the most important pieces of our information economy.

Mark Hurst: As I see it, the reason Timnit got fired is because she very, very calmly told the truth about some of the problems in Google's AI algorithms. 

Wade Roush: This is Mark Hurst again.

Mark Hurst: And Google, for all of their public pronouncements about diversity and ethics and so on, the moment anyone says something true about the disadvantages of Google's approach, they're out…Google cannot brook any dissent. And so just taking Timnit's example, do you want to use the services of …a $1.6 trillion company that cannot brook any dissent, any questioning or any mild revelation of the disadvantages, not even to get to the horrifying toxicity of some of the things that happened on YouTube and other services, just a couple of questions in a scholarly paper about the ethics of their their A.I. algorithms. And they're out. Do you want to do business with a company like that?...

Mark Hurst: So that's that's just two minutes on my basic thoughts on on Timnit Gebru, but I could I could talk about their monopolistic behavior, the anti-competitive squelching of of real innovation online, their surveillance capitalism, tracking every everyone, everywhere they go and and essentially lying about it when they're when they're questioned under oath….It's unbelievable to me that we allow a company like this to exist at all to continue operation at all. I mean, I saw yesterday the news that the, who is it, the Ohio attorney general wants to turn Google into a public utility, which is kind of an interesting development. Um. Why don't we start by shutting down the entire company for what it's done? That'd be my proposal. Let's shut down the entire Google enterprise and then talk about how to build something that is not so horribly exploitative in its place.

Wade Roush: I mean, if you gave me a magic wand and I could shut down a Silicon Valley giant company, I think I would start with Facebook, but whatever.

Mark Hurst: Wade, Wade, I'm sorry, it's a tie in the race to be the most horribly exploitative, evil company in the country. Facebook and Google, they're just neck and neck every single day. So I'd agree with you, Wade, let's shut Facebook down. But if we do that, then the same day, let's shut Google down as well.

Wade Roush: I want to be clear. I respect Mark’s opinions. But I’m not saying let’s shut down Google. 

I’m just saying that the Timnit Gebru incident was my personal breaking point, when I decided it was time to stop contributing to the company’s vast online empire and do what I could to hold the company accountable for its actions.

And that’s exactly what I’ll talk about…right after this break.


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Wade Roush: So let’s say, for whatever reason, you want to escape from the Google ecosystem. How do you even do that?

Computer voice: One!

Wade Roush: Well, the first step is just to choose a different search engine. 

As Mark Hurst and I were discussing earlier, there’s a great one called DuckDuckGo that doesn’t track your searches at all, and therefore doesn’t follow you around the Web showing you ads for the stuff you just searched for.

But there are other choices too, including a search engine called Qwant, Q-W-A-N-T, and another one called Ecosia.

And there’s an even newer search engine called Neeva, N-E-E-V-A, that works on a subscription model. I asked Mark what he thought of it.

Wade Roush: So they're they're not making money on targeted advertising….The old adage is, you know, if you're not the customer, you're the product. And they're trying to short circuit that by charging people directly. Do you see anything in that kind of model?

Mark Hurst: Yeah, yeah, I think it's a possible future… I mean, we've just on the big tech side, we've just seen recently that Twitter announced, what is it, Twitter Blue, a subscription product for for some of their advanced users. Um, I think I mean, I have said and written for years now that algorithmic amplification as a profit driver is completely wrong. It's wrong ethically, morally, all sorts of of ways. It's wrong. And a a subscription business allowing people to pay for the service on a monthly basis is fundamentally, um, it gives a better chance that it's that it's a fair and equitable service that that's that's not exploiting anybody along the chain. So what Neeva has has announced is interesting. I, I don't want to come across, as, you know, super biased. But I am aware that the, some of the money that made it possible for Neeva to launch came from Google, in the net worth of the individuals who have left Google. And I'm I am always a little bit skeptical of a team that was born and raised in Silicon Valley with Silicon Valley money, because I've seen a lot of startups come out of Silicon Valley and they say, oh, well, we're going to be real different. We have this we have this alternative business model. And within a few years, they revert to the mean of Silicon Valley, which is totally over financialized operations and some hidden exploitation that they always deny and all of the other toxic practices that we see out there. 

Wade Roush: Well you're hitting on an important theme here, I think, which has to do with just having greater awareness as a consumer of Internet services and technologies of all kinds. I mean, you're asking people to pay a certain amount of attention to the companies and teams behind these products and to track them over time. So, you know, even a company like DuckDuckGo could go down the dark path, right, eventually. And they seem to be, their hearts are in the right place right now, but who's to say what might happen there over five or 10 years?

Mark Hurst: That's why it's important, by the way, to maintain Good Reports as a website and not, you know, etched in stone somewhere. All of this is fluid. Everything online is fluid. It can change. You exactly right. And so, yes, we have to keep an eye on the tools and the teams and the companies and the business models out there that we like today because tomorrow they could flip on us.

Wade Roush:One thing to know is that the web browsers on your desktop or your mobile phones are set to use one search engine by default, and for most people that default is set to Google. But it’s easy to change it to DuckDuck Go just by going into the preferences settings for your browser.

Now, after you switch to a new search engine, the rest of the steps get are a little harder. 

And I think Mark is right that it’s self-defeating to try to do all of them at once. Just go one step at a time.

Computer voice: Two!

Wade Roush: When you’re ready, the next thing to do is to stop using Google Chrome, if that’s your browser. There are plenty of good alternatives. 

I use Mozilla Firefox. But lots of people prefer Apple’s Safari browser. Microsoft makes a good browser called Edge. Even DuckDuckGo makes a nice mobile browser for your smartphone.

When you do download a new browser, just be sure to choose set the default search engine to something other than Google.

Computer voice: Three!

Wade Roush: Okay, next is email. This is a tough one. 

Google’s free Gmail service has a global market share of somewhere between 40 and 45 percent. And I understand why. It’s really good.

Again, there are excellent alternatives. But they’re going to cost you a little money.

You need to be able to see that as a good thing. Because as I said earlier, if you’re not paying for the product, you are the product. Meaning, the provider is monetizing your attention by collecting your personal and behavioral data in order to show you targeted ads. The solution is to pay up front for a product that isn’t supported by advertising.

Over at Good Reports, Mark recommends a paid email service called Fastmail.

I haven’t tried that one, but I can give a five-star rating to ProtonMail, which is the service I switched over to.

ProtonMail charges $48 per year for its basic plan and the main selling point is that the company is obsessed with privacy and security. 

All emails are end-to-end encrypted, meaning that even ProtonMail can’t read them. And all the company’s entire infrastructure is in Switzerland, so customers’ emails are stored on servers in an underground bunker 1,000 meters below the Swiss Alps. 

Protonmail has a browser-based interface for your desktop or a laptop and a dedicated mobile app for your phone. 

And neither one of them are as elegant as Gmail’s app, to be honest. But I actually feel like that’s an advantage. 

I spend too much time on email as it is, and I want to finish and get out of there. So I’m perfectly happy with a bare-bones email app that isn’t designed to keep me logged in for as long as possible.

Computer voice: Four!

Wade Roush: Next is mobile operating systems. This one’s also tough, because so many people own Android phones. 

The obvious alternative is to switch to an Apple iPhone the next time you replace your phone.

But iPhones are expensive, and not everybody likes Apple.

If you have an Android phone it is possible, believe it or not, to remove the operating system and replace with third-party systems. One of the leading ones is called GrapheneOS. For details go look at the mobile device page at GoodReports. 

Computer voice: Five!

Wade Roush: Now for some easy stuff. There’s actually a whole list of Google apps and services that are relatively easy to avoid. 

The best alternative for you will depend partly on what kind of phone and what kind of computer you have.

Instead of using Google Play to get your music, you can use Bandcamp or Apple Music.

Computer voice: Six!

Wade Roush: Instead of Google Maps, you can use Apple Maps, which is a lot better than it used to be. There’s also Bing Maps and OpenStreet Maps.

Computer voice: Seven!

Wade Roush: Instead of Google Calendar, you can use iCloud calendar if you’re an Apple person, or the calendar built into Microsoft Outlook if you’re a Windows person.

Computer voice: Eight!

Wade Roush: If you collaborate a lot using Google Docs or Google Sheets, then there’s always the suite of iWork apps from Apple and the online version of Microsoft Office, which I guess is now called Microsoft 365? And there are lots of other perfectly good cloud-based office suites, like Zoho.

Computer voice: Nine!

Wade Roush: For online storage, you’re going to want to get everything off of Google Drive and move it onto Dropbox or or Microsoft OneDrive.

Computer voice: Ten!

Wade Roush: For photos, you’ll need to replace Google Photos and use Apple’s iCloud Photos service if you’re an Apple person. If you’re on Android, you can get a Pro account at Flickr for $60 per year. Or you can just save a copy of all of your photos on Dropbox or your preferred cloud storage service.

And this, probably goes without saying, but if you want to avoid Google, you shouldn’t buy a Google Chromebook computer or a Google Home smart speaker or a Nest thermostat or any other device made by Google.

Now, here’s an important tip. If you’ve been a Google user for a long time, then you probably have oodles of personal data sitting on Google’s servers. And you’re going to want to copy all of that back to your computer at home before you cancel any of your Google services.

Fortunately Google does take the position that your data is yours, and it’s built a fairly good tool for downloading it. It’s called Google Takeout and you can find it by signing in to your Google account and going to

When I went to Google Takeout I learned that the company was storing a whopping 340 gigabytes of my data. 

Most of that was photos and videos. But it also included 17 years worth of Gmail messages and attachments.

When you use Takeout, Google bundles all of your data together and lets you download it in chunks, two gigabytes at a time. 

Which means I had to download 170 separate files. Fortunately I had an external hard drive with lots of empty space so I put it all on there.

Once you’ve downloaded all your data using Takeout, you can go back to Google and delete the online versions of your photos and videos and files.

And then, finally, you’ll be ready to close your Google account once and for all.

Now, I want to be clear that there are two major facts that make it almost impossible to get Google completely out of your life. 

The first one is about YouTube. There just isn’t a good alternative place to browse videos, and the truth is that there’s a ton of valuable content on YouTube, about everything from the history of Tudor England to how to fix your washing machine.

If you’re a video maker and you just need a place to upload your videos so that you can share them elsewhere, then I’d recommend subscribing to Vimeo.

But if you’re someone who mainly just watches YouTube videos, there really isn’t any other place to go.

The one saving grace is you don’t have to have a Google account to watch YouTube videos. 

If you’re not signed in, you just can’t like, dislike, or comment on videos, and also you won’t be able to watch age-restricted videos. And Google won’t know who you are, so it won’t be able to steer you to your three thousandth video about Star Wars memes or baking. But as I explained earlier, you really don’t want those recommendation algorithms in your life anyway.

The other thing that makes it so hard to avoid Google is that Google’s tools for businesses are embedded so deeply in the Web.

If you wanted to avoid every web page that pulls its ads from Google, or uses Google Analytics to monitor its traffic, or uses Google Fonts to make its text pretty, you’d basically have to stop using the Web altogether.

So. The bottom line is that when you decide to exit the Google ecosystem, it’s not about absolutes, it’s about degrees and shades of gray. 

I like to use the metaphor of reducetarianism. If you put people’s opinions about meat-eating on a spectrum, you’d have carnivores at one end, and vegans way at the other end. 

And somewhere in the middle you have reducetarians. Those are people who don’t swear off meat entirely, but they do cut way back on their meat consumption, for ethical or environmental reasons.

You can be a Google reducetarian, and that’s totally fine. 

And for sure, it’s way better than doing nothing. 

But that kind of begs one final question. Google isn’t the only tech giant we should be worried about. 

For instance, it would have been just as easy for me to put together an episode about why everyone should quit buying stuff on Amazon.

So once you start down this road of opting out of the economy built by the tech giants, where does it stop? 

And when we exercise our choices as consumers, do these trillion-dollar companies really feel any impact at all?

That’s what I wanted to talk about in the final part of my conversation with Mark Hurst.

Wade Roush: I’ve deleted my Facebook account, long since. We did a whole episode about that.I'm in the process of leaving Google. But I want to get at a bigger question here, because we're enmeshed in the networks and the schemes of many of these tech giants. Not you, Mark. You've done a great job of unenmeshing yourself. The rest of us are still working on it. I guess I want to ask you about: Am I opening myself up to charges of hypocrisy? If I continue to use the services of some tech giants like Amazon or Netflix or Apple or Microsoft while working so hard to rid myself of my connections with Facebook and Google.

Mark Hurst: That's a good question, um, and I put myself right there with you, Wade. I mean, I still use big tech services. I carry an iPhone… my family's a subscriber to Netflix. You know, I'm speaking to you on a Zoom connection that is running on a MacBook Pro that was designed by Apple and manufactured probably completely in China.… Occasionally, we see news that suppliers to the company, these big tech companies, are implicated in forced labor….Have I given away the computer, have I sent it to the recycling facility? No, I'm still using it…And my conclusion is that we're all enmeshed, to use your word, or to use my word, we're all complicit in the sins of this global big tech dominated economy. We're all complicit. So what do we want to do about it? When you really look at it? And I think it's really important for us to take the time to become aware about how we're complicit, look at the details, understand the forced labor, understand the economics and the business, the business models that Google and Apple and others are reliant on. And when we gain that awareness, we may find it's impossible to extricate ourselves from the system totally.

Mark Hurst: But here's the good news. With the awareness, we can make some local choices to improve things. And who knows where that'll lead, Wade. If enough of us make the decision to extricate ourselves from Google, to the point of this episode, maybe if enough of us do that, we'll form a movement and other companies will see an opportunity to build less exploitative tools for us. You know, we'll we'll start to build some momentum. You’ve got to start somewhere. This is to my point earlier, that setting a goal of getting ourselves 100 percent off of Google is is unrealistic. And it's I think it's a little bit of a harmful goal because it's so hard that people are going to give up early on. But instead, let's let's have a goal of learning what's happening in the world and then making some choices for ourselves, some small choices at first, of how we want to do things differently and to have some humility about it.

Wade Roush: Do you feel like this strategy of individual level boycott or renunciation can add up to something meaningful down the road? How does it change things when an individual decides to stop using Google, stop buying Apple products, stop being on Facebook, whatever it might be? That's something I worry about because it's sort of the same question as like how much difference does it make for one person to become a vegan when there are still, you know, six billion carnivores on the planet?

Mark Hurst: Yeah, great question. Why be a vegan or vegetarian? Here, let me add to that list of questions. Why recycle? Why vote, Wade? Are you kidding? When is the last time an election was determined by one vote? Why be polite to people on the subway here in New York City?...And what does it matter in the grand scheme? … Not to get too deep in this conversation about Google, Wade, but these questions around what we should be doing with technology, they quickly lead to questions of ultimate values and meaning. Why are we here, Wade? Why are we on this earth? What are we supposed to do with our lives? What do our lives mean? …Personally, I think that there is meaning in in in self-sacrifice and doing something that's helpful to someone other than yourself. And if if by making some of these changes in my own habits with technology, I'm starving Google just a little bit of a few bits of personal data, then maybe I have added my vote to tear down that company. And that's all I can do. I can't save the world. I'm just I'm just one person. But it's really a question of what do you believe in and what are your values by which you want to live your life?

Wade Roush: Ok, Mark, thank you so much, sir. Always great to talk to you. And when I make the decision to get rid of Apple, I'll come back to you again.

Mark Hurst: This will be an ongoing series. How to how to get off each one of these. I really appreciate you bringing bring me back on the show, Wade and keep up the great work.

[musical transition]

Wade Roush: Soonish is written and produced by me, Wade Roush.

Our intro theme is by Graham Gordon Ramsay. Our outro theme and all the other music in this episode is from Titlecard Music and Sound.

You can follow the show on Twitter at soonishpodcast and you can check out a transcript of this episode and links to more resources on our website at 

Also at the website, I’ll be publishing a bunch of links to how-to articles about getting off Google and a helpful checklist of things to remember.

Soonish is a proud founding member of Hub & Spoke, a nonprofit collective of indie producers making some of the smartest audio stories out there.

And this week I want to recommend that you check out the world’s very first podcast, Open Source, a show about arts, ideas, and politics. In one recent episode host Christopher Lydon talks to the writers Joshua Cohen, Sayed Kashua, and Bernard Avishai about the end of the Netanyahu era, in fiction and beyond. Listen at or wherever you get your podcasts. And check out the whole Hub & Spoke lineup at

This episode brings the fourth season of Soonish to a close. And what a weird season it was, stretching all the way from the early days of the coronavirus pandemic to the chaos around the US presidential election and finally to this season of cautious reemergence. It’s been quite a journey and I want to thank all of you for coming along with me.

Now I’ll be taking some time to rest and travel and catch up with my family, and also to rethink the show a bit before I dive into Season Five. I’ll be back in your podcast feed this fall. Which is the grand scheme of things, still counts as …. Soonish.