- 1 Google
- 2 Google Chrome
- 3 Google News
- 4 Gmail
- 5 Google Calendar
- 6 Google Contacts
- 7 Google Maps
- 8 Google Keep
- 9 Google Tasks
- 10 Google Drive
- 11 Google Photos
- 12 Google Docs
- 13 Android
- 14 Google Play
- 15 YouTube
- 16 Conclusion
Google is definitely not famous for its love of privacy. Primarily, the name is associated with the world's most-used search engine. However, in its 23-year history, Google has grown rapidly. It has acquired as well as launched numerous additional services, besides the original search and ads business.
You need to keep track of your meetings and events? Here you go, Google Calender. Do you want to communicate with friends and receive notifications from online platforms? Have a little Gmail. What about hacking down on that keyboard of yours? Take that Google Docs.
And of course, in Google-fashion, all of those services and all the others are offered for free. It doesn't cost you anything. But, as most people should know by now, nothing in life is really free. If you don't have to pay anything monetarily, you'll pay in the form of your data. Trade privacy for that shiny new Google contacts interface.
Especially in the case of contacts this appears quite disturbing: you're not only giving away your own data but also the personal information of, well, your contacts. And, hand to your heart, do you really ask your friends and family, colleagues and business partners for permission to share their data with some ominous American mega-corp? I doubt it. Actually, I presume you'd receive a very irritating glaze from most people when requesting this permission.
Anyways, my aim with this article is not to lecture you about all the ways that “Google bad” but rather provide you with insights from my journey away from Google toward a more privacy-oriented life.
This blog post summarizes a process that took the better part of a year. I didn't sit down for a weekend and decided to eliminate all Google products from my workflow, and/or freetime. Instead, gradually, I went on the lookout for alternatives to the aforementioned services.
For the sake of this article, let's first take a look at all the stuff made by Google I've used from time to time:
- YouTube (well, duh)
- Google Calendar
- Google Chrome
- Google Contacts
- Google Docs
- Google Drive
- Google Keep
- Google Maps
- Google Play
- Google Photos
- Google Search
- Google Tasks
I have no idea whether this is the complete list. However, those were the ones that came off the top of my mind and that I have used the most.
So, in no particular order, let's walk through those and look at the things I did to lessen my use of them.
I mean, it's obvious to use less of Google's core product when you want to use less of Google in general. Everything started with Google's search engine. And I admit that from both a technical and user point of view, Google Search is probably the best web search engine out there – if it weren't for the collection of all your data.
Google Search was probably the first thing that I threw out the window. Because it also was one of the simplest things to do. The alternative I now use is DuckDuckGo. The process of switching search engines is as easy as opening your browser, going to the settings, and selecting DuckDuckGo as the default search engine.
DuckDuckGo even offers some features which are really useful for me. I'm just going to name the one I have the most use of: Bangs. By prepending or appending a bang to your search term, you can direct the search to a different platform. For example, adding
!w (or, alternatively,
w!) to your search will automatically route the query to Wikipedia. On top of that, you can even say
!wde for German Wikipedia,
!wno for Norwegian Wikipedia and so on. Other examples for bangs are
!a for Amazon,
!dcc for dict.cc,
!s for StartPage, … A complete list of available Bangs can be found at DuckDuckGo.
Moreover, there is an open-source search engine that could increase your privacy even more than DuckDuckGo. It's name is Searx and the nice thing about it is that you have the option to use either one of the widely available hosted instances or just set up your own Searx search engine on your own server. The latter might be the only 100% solution for keeping the entirety of your data private. However, to this date I haven't taken the time to try it out and look at the quality of the results. All I know is that it's a metasearch engine, so it aggregates the results from other search engines.
I have one more advice to give anyone trying to reduce their Google footprint. The best way to reduce the amount of knowledge any search engine can have about you, is to simply use your browser's built-in search function. When you visit
[kingofdog.de](<http://kingofdog.de>) often (like me), your browser should be able to find the correct website by just entering the first few letters (such as “king”) and suggest it to you in the address bar. Clicking it directly, avoids sending your search query to Google and co. Additionally, Firefox offers special search tags that can limit your search further. By beginning your search query with
^ , for instance, you can search your local browser history exclusively. The same pertains to
% for opened tabs and
* for bookmarks.
This was an easy one for me. I can't recall any point of time in recent history where Chrome was the primary browser of mine. Most of my online life, I spent with Firefox, together with some periods using Vivaldi and Opera.
Still, there were moments where I did indeed use Chrome, primarily for development purposes. Some of these use cases still exist, as web developers are practically required to test their websites in Chrome, being the most popular browser and so on.
But the development process itself is now 100% Firefox-based for me. Although Chrome is kept installed on my pc, I don't remember having used Chrome for regular browsing in the past year.
For a long time, Google News used to be my primary source of, well, news. I liked (and still do in some way) having news from a wide range of outlets to get an unbiased picture of what's happening in the world. However, I'm not as sure anymore if Google is the right candidate to offer an unbiased source of information.
My replacement for Google News is two-fold: on the one hand, I use the official app by the German news outlet “Tagesschau”. Tagesschau is the news programme of ARD which is part of the public service broadcasting in Germany. Thereby, I entrust them with correct research and objective reporting. On the other hand, I use a self-hosted service for !wsubscribing to various RSS feeds.
FreshRSS is a free and open-source feed aggregator that is highly customizable and easy to host yourself using Docker. I decided to use it because I want to keep track of the articles I've already read across different devices. The only problem I ran into was to find a suitable RSS reader for Android that is compatible with FreshRSS and also looks decent. Eventually, I settled for FeedMe. It's free, open-source and either downloadable from GitHub or the Play Store.
Replacing Gmail was one of my top priorities. For a way too long time, Gmail was the main email provider I employed for signing up at online platforms. Additionally, I had an account at the German provider web.de, one with Microsoft's Outlook, as well as one offered by my ISP. It was the last one that finally forced me (and my family) to make the switch. Primarily, the ISP-email came to use for serious and confidential communication, for example with school, family or my mobile carrier.
Yet, as we wanted to switch our ISP in order to get a better internet connection, we forced ourselves to discard the ISP-owned email addresses. What followed was a lot of research about the best options to increase privacy in email communication. There are plenty of email providers that advertise their increased privacy protection. Most of them charge a fee for their services, which is mostly a good sign since they're thus incentivized to keep your data safe and don't need to rely on advertisement revenue for their business. But it seemed to me a weird idea to replace a mega-corporation with another corporation to entrust kind of the center of information in my life.
Accordingly, there remained only one real alternative for hosting my mail. And that consisted of hosting a custom mail server. Coincidentally, I already had a VPS that I have been renting from the German provider Contabo. Using Docker it was child's play to get a mail server up and running – and that was about it. I had a lot of issues getting fancy stuff such as SPF, DKIM, DMARC and what not – everything you're expected to have nowadays as an email server – to work initially. After some trial'n'error at least, I had my own, functioning mail server using Mailu. If you want to know about my concrete configuration, let me know in the comments, so that I might write a dedicated post about that topic.
Cherry on top
Well, it was one thing migrating all existing registrations to use my new email address(es). This really was a tedious process. But something still felt wrong.
I'd still entrust all of these numerous services to keep my data safe, especially my email address. I was definitely not thrilled about receiving spam mails of any kind, so I set out to protect my email addresses from this risk.
Therefore, I wanted to use a different address for every service I signed up with. I found something called SimpleLogin which offers a self-hosted mail server that can generate a one-time email address via browser plugin for every service and redirect all incoming mail to your own, actual address. Sadly, I wasn't able to get this to work next to the actual mail server on the same VPS.
So, I settled for a slightly worse option that still works awesome. I just added an additional subdomain to my mail server. All possible email addresses under this subdomain would be redirected to my actual mail account. Toutlhus, if a service I registered with was to be hacked, I would simply block this specific mail address from redirecting anymore and I wouldn't have anything more to worry about. After using it for several months now, I can definitely recommend this simple, a little hacky way of protecting your mail account from junk. Should you desire more details about my solution, I'd be happy to provide them to you in another article. Just let me know!
For the past few years, Google Calendar was the go-to solution for keeping track of my appointments. And admittedly, this was quite difficult to get out of my life. Even now, the transition is not as 100% complete as I would like it to be. Also, it took some trial'n'error to get everything to work as it should.
My first instinct was to use the calendar plugin for Nextcloud. I already had a self-hosted Nextcloud instance running. So I just installed the corresponding add-on and imported the existing calendar file using the Google Calendar web interface. That worked all well – until I thought about getting the same calendar into my main email program on desktop (Microsoft Outlook) as well as my phone.
To get the calendar into Outlook for Windows, I used a tool called Outlook CalDav Synchronizer. This program extends Outlook to paste in a CalDAV URL and synchronize a local calendar with the hosted CalDAV. Coincidentally, Nextcloud offers a CalDAV interface which made it easy to import the online calendar into Outlook. Phew, first step complete!
Switching to mobile
For my Android phone the process was a lot more tedious. However, after having found a working solution, it's actually quite simple. The default calendar app on Android (which is Google Calendar) doesn't support external CalDAV URLs. Nextcloud's official app doesn't support syncing calendars with the phone as well.
After a quick search I found an app called DAVx⁵ on the Play Store which offered the option to sync CalDAV calendars with a local phone calendar. That was exactly what I was looking for! Sadly, it costs about 5€ and I didn't even know beforehand if it would work with my Nextcloud setup. So, following some more research, I discovered that the app was made open source and is also available for free on the alternative app store F-Droid. Until that point, I had heard of F-Droid but had not used it myself.
Installing F-Droid is actually quite simple and downloading an app from it too. With DAVx⁵ finally on my phone, I could try out connecting it to my Nextcloud server. And as it turns out, this process is even easier than in Outlook because you only need to enter the base URL for Nextcloud and the app automatically discovers all available calendars.
So that's that. But how about the actual calendar app? The offical calendar app is just as Google-y as before and still makes me susceptible to their grasp. To this date I haven't found a calendar app that a) is compatible with DAVx⁵, b) offers widgets, c) looks alright, d) is ad-free (if at least in a premium version), and e) sends notifications on calendar events.
Though, there are some candidates that appear to be promising as my daily drive calendar app. Among them are OneCalendar, … Maybe I need to develop my own calendar app after all… :/
One More Thing
I described above how I used Nextcloud to setup my calendars. The only problem I was having with it is that I don't really use Nextcloud that much for anything else. So I have an entire cloud setup running on my server taking up resources for something I don't need.
Accordingly, I kept looking for a different solution. And, funnily enough, this solution was right before my eyes. As already explained in the section about Gmail, I host my own mail server based upon Mailu.
Mailu offers its own damn calendar server. 🤦♂️
This calendar server uses the open source software Radicale, a complete solution for calendars, contacts, journals and so on. I tried Mailu's version out, it worked and so I migrated my Nextcloud calendar to Radicale. Everything else was simply to adjust the URLs in Outlook and DAVx⁵ and, voilà, I had my all-in-one, self-hosted calendar setup ready to rumble. 10/10 can definitely recommend!
I already ranted about why keeping contacts on Google's servers is a bad idea, so let's just jump right into it.
If you read the previous section about Google Calendar, you might already have an idea of what I use to synchronize my contacts between all my devices. Indeed, I went through the exact same process for hosting them on my server. Initially, I tried out Nextcloud's contacts add-on. But together with the migration to Radicale for my calendar, I moved my contacts there.
Even the clients for syncing the contacts with my devices are the same, as the protocol for contacts (CardDAV) is pretty similar to the one for calendars (CalDAV). Outlook CalDav Synchronizer also handles contacts and DAVx⁵ takes care of them as well.
Yay, calendars and contacts: check!
Google Maps is just about the best all-in-one navigation experience currently out there. And I admit to using it way too much.
For instance, the timeline feature of Google Maps is really neat. I like browsing through my location history to re-experience all the memories of those places. However, I don't like having Google experience them with me.
At the moment, I do still use Google Maps for navigating in my car. At least I found an alternative for the timeline feature so that I can disable all the tracking functions that Google offers. And that solution is called OwnTracks. Of course, it's open-source and self-hostable – everything your heart desires.
So, I set up an OwnTracks instance on my server and downloaded the corresponding Android app. During this process I experienced some issues pertaining my network controller Traefik. Some hours of troubleshooting later, I'm proud to say that I can track all my data myself now.
Unfortunately, the OwnTracks-based setup isn't nearly as clean-looking and doesn't have the same user experience as Google Maps. But I feel a lot better knowing that my data is only stored on my own servers (as long as Google doesn't lie about its feature switches). Moreover, being open-source and all I have a lot more control over the configuration. If I wanted to, I could export all GPS positions and use them in some geo program (such as Google Earth, oh wait...).
Mainly, I used Google Keep to take quick notes on my phone with. It was just so comfortable to know that those notes would be there on my desktop when I visited the website. I mean, the Android app was even pre-installed on my phone – so why would I download an extra note-taking app which would clutter up my system's storage?
But, following my journey to de-googlefy my life, I needed to get rid of Keep as well. Initially, I considered using Microsoft's alternative: OneNote. The other Office apps were already installed on my phone and PC anyway, so why not use the notes taking offering which I paid for?
Enough rhetorical questions. Eventually, I tried out a completely different service: Notion. I know, I know: Notion is not self-hosted or FOSS at all. Still, after weeks of research and trying out different stuff, I couldn't find any app that I liked more than Notion.
The feature that I enjoy most with Notion is their databases. This makes it so easy to keep track of large amounts of notes. I spent the last semester at university taking my notes with Notion and just couldn't get rid of it anymore. Previously, I took my notes by hand or with OneNote. But the process of writing math equations in OneNote is just so tedious. The LaTeX-based method of entering equations in Notion just made everything so much simpler, cleaner, faster, and I had a better time looking through those notes.
So, despite being a non-open service, I continue to use Notion. In the least, spreading your data across multiple services reduces the amount of data each and every one of those services knows about you. Also, in the event of the service or even company shutting down (which is, admittedly, unlikely in the case of Google), you're not too bad off, since you only use parts of that service. That's my reason for accepting Notion. Also, it helps that Notion's premium version is free of charge for me at the moment since I'm a student.
As with all Google services, the names are pretty self-explanatory. Google Tasks keeps track of, well, tasks. It used to be my place to hold my to do's.
I'll make the solution I replaced it with quick and simple: Todoist. It's just awesome. I could go on and on for hours about all the nice, little features of Todoist that I learned to love during the last year or so that I've been using Todoist now. I'll try to keep it short: while entering tasks you can use natural language, such as “in one week”, to schedule single or recurring tasks. Projects help organizing all your tasks. You can nest tasks that belong together. You can write comments and attach files or descriptions to tasks if you want to add more information. There are browser plugins and an Outlook extension to add both websites and emails to your tasks.
The argument for accepting a solution like Todoist which is not open-source and not self-hosted is the same as for Notion. It's better to spread data across different companies than to keep everything in one place. That's also the reason why I refuse to add my to do's in Notion, even though Notion offers a not too bad way of keeping track of tasks and reminders.
I don't think anyone needs an explanation of what Google Drive is. Here's one anyway: it's a drive that is, well, by Google where you can store your files in the cloud and access them from anywhere at any time. The answer for replacing it is two-fold: OneDrive and Synology.
Firstly, I use the included 1TB OneDrive storage from my Microsoft 365 subscription for files that I want to share with others. Though, that's not completely true. I also use my self-hosted Nextcloud instance for that kind of thing. However, I'm not even sure by what pattern I choose which cloud. Also, there aren't that many files I need to share with other people currently.
Secondly, I store private, non-shared data on my local Synology NAS. Calling it my NAS might be somewhat weird, since my entire family writes to it, mainly for backup purposes. Currently, the NAS holds 16TB of HDDs which is more than enough for holding all my documents, videos, photos etc.
The nice thing about Synology is that it offers a ready to use ecosystem of apps and services which let you exploit more of your NAS. For example, there are apps to synchronize two Synology NAS devices to have an off-site backup. You can also upload your backups to cloud storage. This feature is quite interesting for me: I set it up to push the most important documents to OneDrive – with one little twist. All the files are symmetrically encrypted on the NAS and only then uploaded to Microsoft's servers. Thus, I can relax knowing that my most important files will be safe even in the case of the house collapsing, or whatever, and no one else can read them.
Staying on the topic of my NAS, I can outright tell you the solution for getting rid of Google Photos. Synology offers a plugin for their NASs that allow you to browse through photos and videos. This plugin also enables you sync your phone's pictures with that NAS server, avoiding image backup services such Google Photos, OneDrive, DropBox and so on.
It even includes nice-to-have special features. For example, Synology Photos can automatically identify the objects depicted in an image and allow you to search for it based on those objects. And all of that while keeping your data local.
Well, completely local is not the whole truth. As part of Synology QuickConnect, you have the option to access your local NAS from outside your network. The traffic is routed through Synology's servers which redirect it to your NAS. For this to work, the NAS needs to communicate regularly to Synology's servers, announcing things like its current IP address. Hyper privacy conscious people may not want to use QuickConnect because of this but I prefer having the possibility to access my documents and photos from anywhere. Of course, it's also possible to setup a VPN so you can access your local network which would be even better than QuickConnect. However, a VPN is a lot more complex to set up and connect to. Sadly, it wouldn't even be an option for me since we're in a IPv6-only network and from an IPv4 network I couldn't connect to my router. But I digress...
On the topic of Google Drive, there's another product of Google one shouldn't oversee. Google Docs and its siblings are a collection of office tools to directly compete with Microsoft's Office suite. It offers an app for text processing, spreadsheets, presentations, and so on. All of those are available in the form of web apps, so you don't even need to install something on your computer. Of course, this also fits perfectly into Google's idea of the Chromebook where all software is only in the form of websites.
Fortunately, I didn't use Google Docs too much before but nevertheless I wanted to eliminate the little use of Docs and use alternatives. As you might know already when you read the previous sections, I have a Microsoft 365 subscription. Correspondingly, one solution of getting rid of Google Docs was to just use the (in my opinion much better) products from Microsoft like Word, Excel and PowerPoint.
Still, Microsoft is just as much of a data-grabbing mega-corp, so just relying on their services instead of Google's is not really a massive improvement. So, I attempted to distribute the office workload to different offerings.
For example, I mainly use Notion for taking notes and writing my videos – both of which were in the realm of OneNote and Word respectively. I don't use Word or Docs for scientific texts but instead rely on sweet Markdown and LaTeX. In case you want to know about my Pandoc-based Markdown setup dedicated for writing scientific articles, let me know so I'll compose a dedicated blog post about this topic. Presentations are a mixture of PowerPoint and Markdown, so Google Slides are out of the picture as well.
We're heading into the really tough area now. All of my smartphones have been Android devices. Partly because I like the open experience on Android better, and partly because Android phones are a lot more affordable than those of the only real competitor, Apple.
But sadly the privacy of Android devices is more than questionable. Even though Android is officially developed by the “Android Open Source Project”, Google has so much influence over the operation system that you practically can't avoid it. Manufacturers are in fact forced to install a wide range of Google's apps by default if they want to use the Play store.
There are some offerings out there that promise a Google-free or at least -reduced Android experience. One example would be LineageOS. Unfortunately, I use too many apps relying on Google Play services and I couldn't dare the step to try out one of those alternative OS's. On top of that comes the fact that I develop Android apps myself and for work which doesn't work too well with a trimmed down Android experience such as LineageOS.
So, to conclude, Android is one of the few things that will remain in my portfolio of Google products for the foreseeable future. However, I'm always open for suggestions of how to manage developing Android apps without Google.
Very much intertwined with the Android ecosystem is the most prominent app store which is coincidentally made by Google. Recently, there has been a larger discussion about app stores both on Android and iOS initiated by Epic Games' lawsuits. At least, Android has the advantage over iOS that users are able to install apps from different sources than the official app store. Either they can directly download APK files from the internet, or they can install an additional app store that takes care of searching, downloading, and updating apps.
One such store is F-Droid which focuses solely on free and open-source software. Thus, it's by no means a complete replacement for Google Play but at least a step in the right direction. There's just no realistic scenario where all software is free and open-source.
When looking for a new app, I now go first to F-Droid and look for a solution there. Only if I can't find anything fitting on F-Droid, I'll switch to Google's Play store.
I know that Google Play is not only an app store but also a service for books, movies, music, newspapers and so on. But since I have never used any of those features, I also don't have to move away from them. My best advice here is (as always) to spread different use cases across different platforms. For instance, you could use Netflix for movies, Steam for games, Spotify for music, Amazon for books. Even though, these options have more than questionable privacy, it's still better than putting all your data in one place. Also, everyone has to make a decision about how much data they're willing to give up for a good user experience.
Well, yeah... YouTube... How should I put this? I just see no way out of this platform. It's not just that I consume a lot of content, I also publish my own videos on YouTube.
Anyway, there are at least some things one can do to increase privacy there. One option would be, of course, to just don't log in and always use incognito browsers to watch videos. However, that one's too uncomfortable for me. You can also disable the tracking of your watch history in Google's account settings.
But the best way I found so far to let YouTube have less data about me is: watching less. Over the past year and a half so, I've continually decreased my daily watch time of content on YouTube. And the benefits of this are plentiful. Not only can YouTube grab less of your personal life. You have more time to use on other stuff too. This one helps me a lot with getting more things done in my free time. My projects don't code them alone after all.
Furthermore, there is always the option to use different platforms. This is not currently possible to do on a widespread basis but at least there are offerings such as Nebula or Floatplane. Both are video platforms which you need to pay for on a monthly basis. In this way, you can support your favorite creators and let Google have less data about you at the same time.
And with that, we've reached the end of this article. To conclude, I was able to eliminate Google Docs, Photos, Drive, Tasks, Keep, Calendar, and Contacts completely from my life. I minimized the use of Google Search to only when I don't find something anywhere else. Google Chrome is only opened for development purposes. My main news app isn't Google News anymore. Gmail now only receives emails from Google (and those platforms that didn't allow me to change the email address). That leaves Google Play, Android, and YouTube. For all three, I'm trying to reduce the impact on my privacy by using them less and disabling tracking options where possible.
I really hope that this blog post is able to help you in your own journey of reducing the use of Google's services. Everyone needs to find their own balance between privacy and comfort (because all Google critics need to admit that most of their services are pretty useful).
In case I didn't cover a specific Google service (that I might not use myself) let me know in the comments. I'll try to do some research on how to replace it with non-Google solutions, ideally self-hosted and open-source ones.