It’s time to say goodbye to Google.
If you’re like most people on the internet, chances are you interact with Google hundreds of times a day.
Not only does Google own the world’s most popular search engine, but its also owns Gmail, YouTube, Google Maps, Google Translate, the ubiquitous AdWords advertisement network, and the Google Chrome browser.
Even if you don’t have a Google account, it’s almost impossible to avoid encountering a Google-owned service on the internet.
For instance, almost half of the world’s websites use Google Analytics, a platform that helps companies see where their users are coming from and track their movements on their websites. Google Analytics can identify unique users and monitor them across the internet wherever their Analytics platform is enabled—effectively handing over most of your browsing history to one of the world’s largest advertising giants.
Why does it matter?
Okay, it’s not exactly news that Google (and other internet companies) routinely track internet users’ activities in order to build their highly profitable advertising platforms. It’s also not news that government-sponsored internet snoopers (such as the NSA and GCHQ) are immensely interested in exploiting these troves of data for their own purposes. So why should you care?
Let’s be very clear: as online services become more sophisticated at tracking users, and as more people around the world become connected to the internet, privacy has become a truly global issue, with vast and possibly dangerous consequences for society. As Facebook’s recent privacy fiasco has shown, data can be stolen, exploited for political manipulation, or otherwise abused for nefarious purposes.
So how do you go about removing Google from your life? Is it even possible? While you won’t succeed at fully escaping from Google’s grasp—especially if they already have a significant amount data about you—here are some of the essential steps you should take to ensure that your life from now on becomes as Google-free as possible:
Change your default search engine
If you type a search query in your browser’s address bar right now and press “enter”, are you automatically redirected to a Google search results page? If so, you can be sure that Google has a complete record of your entire search history. Even if you’ve disabled Search History on your account (which you should do anyway), your search interests are so intrinsically valuable to Google that it’s be hard to believe that they’re not surreptitiously keeping tabs on them.
To fix this, simply change your browser’s default search engine. I highly recommend using DuckDuckGo, which doesn’t store search results in any way. Admittedly, they’ve picked a disarmingly silly name for their service—but they compensate by having a serious commitment to privacy. DuckDuckGo’s search results are not inferior to Google’s (at least, not in any way that I’ve been able to notice) and you won’t feel like you’re missing out by using their search engine instead of Google’s.
Limit Google’s influence by using browser extensions
Google’s influence extends far beyond its own websites due to the pervasiveness of its ad networks and its website visitor monitoring platform, Google Analytics. Using your IP address and browser fingerprint, Google can uniquely identify you as you travel through websites that have its services installed, which provides them with a rich panorama into your online activities.
The best way to limit this tracking is by using browser extensions. While there are many extensions that claim to limit ad tracking and improve privacy, I would recommend that you install the following three: uBlock Origin (for ad and tracker blocking), Privacy Badger (to block additional spyware and trackers) and HTTPS Everywhere (which enables website encryption wherever it’s available).
With these three extensions installed, you will be invisible to Google’s trackers and ad platforms, and you’ll be safe from most spyware and malware on the internet.
If you own an iPhone or iPad, you can install 1Blocker, which offers many of the same privacy capabilities for iOS. Both Android and iOS users could also try Firefox Focus, a privacy-oriented browser that blocks trackers and ads by default.
Delete Google services you don’t use
You’ve probably been wondering if I’m going to tell you to delete your Google account entirely. While taking such a drastic step might feel good, you should remember that Google can still monitor internet users who don’t have Google accounts, and it’s not clear if they ever delete all of they data they have on you even if you ask them to eliminate your account.
Your best choice is simply to stop using Google services as much as possible. This mean deleting your YouTube channel and Google+ account, removing Google Maps from your phone, disabling location history and other activity history, avoiding Google Translate (I find that DeepL offers better translations in many cases, though it doesn’t offer as many languages), and gradually migrating away from your Gmail account.
The good news is that there are alternatives for nearly all of these services. For email, for example, I would recommend using ProtonMail, which offers a private and secure email service that won’t track you (unlike Google, which regularly reads its users’ emails to improve its targeted advertisements).
Some Google services are more difficult to replace. For example, YouTube offers unique content that isn’t available anywhere else, and many academics and ordinary people like to use Google Scholar and Google Books for research.
If you ever do need to use a Google service, consider using a different browser, or at least using an Incognito or Private window on your regular browser (but check your settings to make sure that your privacy extensions remain enabled for private browsing). This won’t make it impossible for Google to track you, as they can still see your IP address and unique device identity (unless you use a VPN or the Tor browser), though it will make tracking you more difficult for them.
And of course, when you’re ready, it won’t hurt to fully delete your account as well.
Switch Away from Chrome
If you’re one of the 310 million people who use Google Chrome worldwide, you might be wondering whether it’s time to ditch it and start using something else instead.
It’s very likely that Google monitors Chrome users (although it’s not clear how extensive this tracking actually is), and it would be hard to believe that they’re not capitalizing on their giant share of the browser market by using Chrome to improve their ad and tracking platforms.
If keeping your data away from Google is your only objective, then almost any other browser will do. There’s a multitude of purpose-built browsers that claim to protect your privacy and security more than others, but I wouldn’t worry too much about those (though you’re welcome to test them out).
For most users, I would recommend the new Mozilla Firefox Quantum browser, which is a faster and much more secure version of the original Firefox browser. Most importantly, Firefox browsers have always had a serious commitment to privacy—much more so than any of the other major browsers. As I’ve already mentioned, mobile users can try Firefox Focus for Android and iOS.
While Firefox Quantum is an excellent browser for privacy-oriented users, keep in mind that the browser does collect some usage and telemetry data, which it sends back to Mozilla and a few third parties. For maximum privacy, I highly recommend disabling all telemetry collection in Firefox by following these instructions.
If you want to take your privacy a step further, I highly recommend trying out the free Tor browser, which bounces your traffic around a worldwide network of servers to make your harder to track (it accomplishes much of what a paid VPN service does). While slightly slower than a regular browser or a regular VPN, it’s 100% free, and countless privacy advocates and dissidents around the world swear by it.
Google may be here to stay, but that doesn’t mean they should own everything you do online.
It’s almost impossible to avoid Google services on the internet—unless you make a conscious effort to do so. But if you’ve followed all of the steps in this list, you’re closer to securing your data privacy by keep your personal information out of Google’s data centers.
Looking for safe VPN recommendations? Check out our curated list.