Essays on Technology and Culture

Why I Still Use Google

In the wake of the PRISM scandal, I’ve seen people I admire and follow online write about cutting Google out of their digital lives. Many of them were already unhappy with Google poking their nose into their personal date, and their collusion with (or capitulation to) the NSA is all the more reason for them to jump ship. They’re right to do so. NSA aside, I still use Google for a lot of things—including all of my email—and will continue to do so until the tradeoffs become unbearable.

Let’s put the NSA stuff aside for a moment, except to say that unless I host my email myself, the possibility exists that someone agent other than myself will be able to get in and access it. This is the risk you take. Not all of us can host our own email on a server we control. [1] Harry Marks switched to iCloud, which is a reasonable solution but still leaves your data in the hands of a third party. While Marco Arment advises against keeping your life in Google, because “it’s downright foolish to tie that much of your data and functionality into proprietary services run by one company in one account that sometimes gets disabled permanently with no warning, no recourse, and no support.” That can even happen with iCloud, so you takes your chances.

I’m not worried about Google looking through my email to serve advertisements—especially since I don’t see them. [2] Even if I didn’t block the ads, gMail’s ads are unobtrusive for online ads. Google is also fairly up front, as far as internet companies go, about looking at email contents to target ads. As long as that’s all they do, and there’s little reason to believe otherwise (again, ignoring PRISM), I’m okay with that. They have to pay for the service somehow. It’s a fair trade: Google lets someone pay them to show me an ad for something I won’t click on (or see), and I get a really great web-based email service. Roundcube looks nice, and may be a good solution if I ever end up hosting my own, but in the browser and with Mailbox on my iOS devices, I can tear through my email with ease. [3] Switching to another service means I have to give this up, and I’m not prepared to do that.

The pain from pulling Google out of my life isn’t worth the tradeoffs I have to make in my workflow or my wallet.
Abandoning Google also means giving up Google Voice, which I love, not least of which because text messaging prices are outright usury. It means convoluted hacks to set a privacy-friendly search engine as default on my iOS devices, when Google works well enough for my needs. Yes, Google altered the deal when they shut down Reader, but I can still live with the new terms. [4]

Of course, I don’t use Google for everything. Now that iCloud mostly has itself together, I prefer to use that to keep my contacts and calendar in sync across my devices, rather than rely on Google. I’ve opted out of Google+ for good. My photos are on Flickr, my data on Dropbox, and I pay for App.Net. Google is just one part of a balanced ecosystem of services I use online. It’s safer than giving one company control of my digital life, even if Google is the company with the deepest integration into the heart of it. But it works, and that’s more important to me than control, or some notion of privacy from advertisers.

  1. It costs $50/mo to host a Mac mini with, plus the cost of a Mac mini, or an additional $100/mo to rent one. Either way, that’s money that comes out of more pressing expenditures for me. (Damn student loans…)  ↩

  2. Yes, I use ad blocking software in all my browsers, though I’m willing to unblock sites that are unobtrusive, or ad networks that are ethical. In any case, it means I have a gMail experience, in the browser, that is ad-free and painless.  ↩

  3. I only signed up for Mailbox after the Dropbox acquisition. Dropbox is another company that I am willing to trust with my data (yet again, ignoring PRISM). They have a valid business model, and though they had a security issue last year, they seem to be on top of their game now.  ↩

  4. It helps that many of the alternatives to Reader are better than what they replace, in no small part due because they’re actively developed.  ↩