Posted in Technology

Lazy Google Boycott: less Google, better internet experience

Google has recently fired an employee whose opinion they disliked and rolled out a demonetization algorithm on YouTube that seems to be prone to false positives has been accused of being a form of censorship. Whether you’re one of the people that call for a boycott of Google over their policies or you just have a very healthy concern for the very large amount of data they’ve been collecting on you, there are a lot of very legitimate reasons to want to reduce their influence on you.

Dropping Google, though, is not easy, given how pervasive it is and how many of its services are hard to replace — can’t give up YouTube without cutting your access to its content creators, can’t give up Gmail unless you are willing to switch to an inferior service or to start paying. It’s a fascinating problem.

However, rather than stop using Google, you can just use it less — without sacrifices or annoyances. In fact, I would argue that all the advice in this article will improve your internet experience rather than inconvenience you, and I suggest you give it a read even if you’re an ardent Google fanboy who never even considered a boycott.

Last updated July 2018. Updates are listed at the bottom of the article. 

Install an ad blocker

Ad blockers are essential, underrated tools nowadays — you should start using them right away if you aren’t already, and learn to use them well. Ads don’t just pollute your browser experience with what goes from a mild annoyance to an unbearable content-blocking distress, but they hog up more bandwidth and resources than the content you’re trying to access, they track you, and, most importantly, they’re a primary malware vector — your ad blocker will likely prevent far more infections than the resource-hogging antivirus you might have running in the system tray.

The uBlock origin browser plugin is the best ad blocker available today, and blocks Google ads by default. While the old favorite Adblock Plus can block them too, by unchecking the “allow unobtrusive ads” option, you should take a minute to switch to uBlock.

You can get uBlock here for Chrome, Vivaldi and other Webkit browsers, and here for Firefox and variants. It works well out of the box, but if I were you I would take a minute and go to Options -> 3rd party filters, then place a check on the filters that look  more interesting — I suggest at least “Anti-adblock killer | Reek” to trim a few of those obnoxious “Hey, we see you’re using adblock” messages.

If you want to take an extra step, you can replace uBlock with the AdNauseam extension — which includes a complete version of uBlock, but can also send an auto-click to ads, which should mess up tracking and put Google and other advertisers in more trouble. AdNauseam doesn’t provide large benefits for the end user, nor consume significant resources, therefore it’s more of a question of how much you hate ad providers.

You can turn off your ad blocker for the specific sites that you’d like to support. Pretty sure you’ve been begged to do so quite a few times already.

Don’t use Chrome

Chrome constantly relays your entire browsing history to Google, and unless you feel perfectly ok with that it should never be used as your browser.

There are numerous alternatives, and my personal favorite is Vivaldi, a fairly new broser by the author of Opera. Like Chrome and most  modern browsers, it’s based on Webkit, so it is very similar, and compatible with all its extensions — plus it comes with a few nifty features. It should easily import your data from Chrome. For those who care about the ideological side, Vivaldi’s creator also criticized Google’s monopoly recently.

If you dislike Vivaldi, but still like Webkit browsers, a very promising alternative is the ambitious Brave browser, created by the author of Javascript — but, while it has a good built-in adblock, it’s hard to suggest it as a Chrome alternative, since at the moment it doesn’t support Chrome’s extensions without some annoying workarounds. Same boat for Opera — once a great alternative browser, now just another Webkit — which requires extra steps to use Chrome extensions, and is in my opinion far worse than Brave.

Firefox is still out there, still reliable and still open source. It still has a good selection of drawbacks, too. It’s still a solid alternative, which should be installed as a secondary browser on every PC — if only to take advantage of its superior version of the VideoDownloadHelper extension, which, unlike the Chrome version, can download YouTube videos. Firefox sync is also useful to transfer your browsing data to Vivaldi across computers, since Vivaldi hasn’t implemented syncing yet.

If you elect to use Firefox, you will probably want to opt out of their telemetry service. Firefox raised a bit of a stink when they considered making their data collection opt-out rather than opt-in. Aside from the objective issues and moving towards the more ideological concerns, Mozilla has taken a stand against “fake news”, which to some means alternative news sources.

I confess I’m not particularly familiar with Edge yet. But, considering that:

  1. I’ve seen it hang twice in the 20 or so minutes I spent with it
  2. Internet Explorer was a nightmarish malware infection Mecca, and an heartfelt manifestation of hatred toward every webdesigner
  3. Microsoft is quite possibly the most evil company on the planet

…I wouldn’t consider it a valid alternative.

Only search on Google when you actually need it

Considering how hard to replace most Google services are, it’s kind of surprising that dialing back on the use of their flagship, the search engine is feasible — and even advantageous.

Your first thought might be Bing. It has been proven that it is significantly superior to Google when it comes to searching pornographic material, and it doesn’t actually work that different from Google in general, possibly due to aping Google’s algorithms. However if you’re the kind of person who wants to abandon Google so an evil corporation doesn’t spy on your data, you’re not really solving the problem with Micro$oft Bing. I suggest limiting its use to NSFW searches, perhaps some image searches — still takes some eggs out of the Google basket, and you’ll get a better experience.

What actually could replace Google on most of your searches is, quite to my surprise, DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo has been known for years to be exceptional at the moral side being a search engine: it doesn’t track you, saves no data on you, couldn’t be better on that respect.

Why didn’t I use DuckDuckGo, then? Well, the search results were rather underwhelming. I gave it another shot these past few days, though, and its improvements are amazing: search seems more accurate, it has those card results (like Bing and Google), and a great spellchecker (like Google, and unlike Bing).  I would say on at least 80% of my searches, it lead me to what I needed much in the same way as Google would have, and a few times it actually brought me to a better result. Using DuckDuckGo as the main search engine and switching to Google when you really need it is very feasible — for instance, I found its performance to be somewhat underwhelming with regional searches, it doesn’t filter image results by license, and most notably it doesn’t OCR images, which will frustrate you to no end on some specific searches.

Using DuckDuckGo with Google as a backup is much better achieved by taking advantage of DuckDuckGo’s !bangs, which allow you to quickly switch to another search engine. You can also install an extension for maximum comfort. Might also want to check some of DuckDuckGo’s tricks.

An alternative solution is using StartPage — which uses Google, but anonymously, bypassing their tracking. I personally prefer DuckDuckGo — not only does StartPage miss some Google features, but usually the reason Google gets better results than other engines is specifically the personal information they tailor your results with — but it’s an opportunity to keep in mind, especially if you’re aiming for a full Google boycott rather than for the more opportunistic approach outlined in this document.

What I find interesting about this is that this good results are not just due to DuckDuckGo improving — they’re largely about Google getting worse. As has already been observed, Google censors adult material even when you disable SafeSearch, and gets continuously served with DMCAs which surely limit its results range. If it starts offering biased results, and 52% of its users seem to think it does, that’ll push it even further back.

Either way, if you use the Google search engine even partially, I strongly suggest installing the Don’t track me Google browser extension on your browser — it forbids Google from mangling your result url, tracking you and slowing you down.

Pretty generous of Google to offer extensions to block their ads and stop them tracking you on their own Chrome Web Store… ever wondered why they would do that?

Blocking ads on Android

The reason Google is so carefree as to offer tools capable of cutting into their revenue generation on their own Chrome Web Store is, to an extent, that they are content with getting just market share for Chrome — with more users, there’s more users that don’t block their ads, but especially more valuable browsing data. But, in my humble opinion, there is also another very important reason: their primary revenue source is progressively shifting from ads on desktop PCs to ads on mobile — where Google doesn’t have a competition that offers more privacy, convenience and openness than their market-leading Android OS, and blocking ads is far harder.

Blocking ads on an Android browser is actually fairly easy: several browsers have a degree of ad blocking. The one which seems to block ads the best for me is the Android version of Brave — which is free, and near-identical to the Android version of Chrome, but faster. Some people prefer Firefox Focus, and while I don’t like it as much as Brave — it seems to let through more ads, and I find the persistent notification is especially annoying — some people might prefer it, especially since it uses an incredibly small amount of device space.

However, browser ads are a just a fraction of the problem. Not only do a lot of applications open their in-app browser, bypassing yours and its ad-blocker, but Play Store applications themselves serve Google-supplied ads. So, in order to properly block ads you’ll need a system-level ad blocker.

Tried a few solutions, and, sadly, no solution I tried worked without paywalls or root. After rooting your device — a rewarding but complex and potentially dangerous endeavor, whose procedure varies depending on your device, but will probably go through the installation of Magisk manager — you can block system level ads with AdAway, which you can download via its APK or through the F-Droid app market — either solution requires you to allow the installation of apps from unknown sources. You can pick your filters, but I suggest you whitelist s.youtube.com, which is often included in filters and not only fails to block YouTube ads, but will prevent your YouTube history from updating.

As far as I can tell, this works for the vast majority of Google Play Store apps — some will administer you an installed ad. YouTube, however, is a problem child, and seems to work around AdAway’s DNS block. I’ve only managed to block YouTube ads with YouTube Vanced — which also allows background playback. I’ve gotten it from inside the aforementioned Magisk Manager (it replaces YouTube, you have to uninstall its updates and prevent it from auto-updating), but it’s allegedly possible to install it even on unrooted devices.

If you can’t or don’t want to root, DNS66 is free and open source, requires no root, is very lightweight and I’ve seen it function for a while. Then it didn’t work anymore, which could be my phone or God knows what. If it works for you, great.

If you use Windows Phone or Apple products, I fear I’m not the most qualified to offer you solutions — saw someone mention 1blocker for Apples, but I don’t have access to those platforms and have no way to test it. If you have access to a Linux server or a Raspberry Pi, apparently Pi-Hole works beautifully, for everything.

Shop around

Most other Google products are inconvenient to abandon, or hard to avoid, so the best advice I have is to shop around, keep informed on alternatives, see if something catches your eye and maybe you can use it instead of the Google service sometimes.

Your favorite content is all on YouTube, and to stop using it would be inconvenient — but have you ever visited vid.me? Or Twitch? Have you checked if they’re convenient for you to use, even occasionally? If you’re a content creator, have you checked if they are a good alternative for you?

Have you considered trying some open alternatives to popular Android apps?

Google Drive gets automatically setup with your Gmail account, which it integrates well with, and has very convenient OCR functionality which helps in search, but is it always the best solution? Personally, I use Drive for my private files, but at work I favor Dropbox — which keeps an history of your files and is invaluable to prevent screwups on important documents. Sometimes I use Box or MediaFire as well — neither is an exceptional service, but I’ve setup my accounts with lucky timing and I have 50 gigabyte on free accounts on both.

Similiar reasoning can be made for most Google services. Keep in mind, if you go from using the Google service 100% of the time to 75% of the time, you’re still reducing their business. And the alternative you find might end up being more convenient for you as well — like, hopefully, at least some of the suggestions in this article.

Article image sourced partially from Succo on PixaBay.

Modifications to the article after publication

16 July 2018

  • Initiated a series of rewrites that should bring the article up to date.
  • Added information about DuckDuckGo !bangs.
  • Added information about AdAway and Android rooting.
  • “Demoted” DNS66 to an alternative system.

11 September 2017

  • Some rewrites and modifications.
  • Added Firefox Focus.
  • Added 1blocker.
  • Added Droid-break.info.
  • Added link to Digital Examiner’s Google consumer report.
  • Added link to Vivaldi’s blog criticizing Google.
  • Added links to YouTube’s seemingly false flag demonetization.
  • Clarified that AdNauseam is an alternative to uBlock, not an add-on to it.
  • Added some more information about DNS66 after some more time testing it.

One thought on “Lazy Google Boycott: less Google, better internet experience

  1. I’ve switched to Opera with multiply users, installed ad nauseam. I still use google calendar, and drive (mostly because they don’t display ads)

    Like

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