Vigeland Sculpture Park, Oslo – January 9th, 2010

The Gmail offer seemed perfectly reasonable at the time. Get lots of space for free, and we’ll show you some ads. We promise that the ads will be relevant and we won’t use banners or pop-ups. Just a sponsored link. You’ll get loads of space, and a flexible interface. It’s a whole new world!

I was using Hotmail at the time. It had 2 MB of inbox space (which could be inflated to 25 MB) and serious security issues, so I was more than happy when somebody sent me a Gmail invite. I never clicked the ads, I didn’t even notice them. Yes, they scanned my e-mails, but they gave me free space in return, right? And it’s just an algorithm, no harm done, and they promise that they won’t be evil!

Google has become more than just search and e-mail. They allow you to share pictures (Picasa), videos (YouTube), documents (Docs), buy books, apps and music (Play). You can store data (Drive), search books and articles (Scholar), manage your calendar (Calendar), host your site (Sites), use it for instant messaging or video chatting (Hangouts) etc. And there is one personalized Google profile behind all these services and products. Apple and Microsoft are trying to achieve the  same thing through iCloud and Outlook.com: all your stuff in one place, safe, easy and free (up to a point). Except that there is no such thing as a free lunch.

Users are basically storing their personal data on a remote server. It’s convenient in case your house burns down, including the backup disks, pictures etc. However, the remote server belongs to a company and it only cares about profit. As a user you have to work your way through Kafkian Terms of Use or uncountable ‘privacy options’ that you have to uncheck. And the terms of use tend to change. A lot.

Enter Michael Piotrowski. I met him at ESSLLI two years ago, and we had some nice discussions about linguistics and programming. He published a post/rant a few months ago that got me thinking: Timeo Danaos… Or: Why I’m Wary of Google Docs.

And then I remembered that Google had been harvesting data when they crossed the earth for Google Street View. And that they collect Wi-Fi passwords through Android. And that they consider sending ads disguised as e-mails. That they might break that old banner promise. That they are going to use their users’ names, pictures and reviews in online advertisements. That there’s the filter bubble.

So I turned into a tinfoil hatter overnight. Google is a Brave New World. It has my calendar, some pictures, an empty Google+ account, my contacts, my e-mail, my search history, my behaviour when using Chrome, lots of information from cookies and Wi-Fi networks… I was always careful to opt out of any changes that gave away personal information. I carefully erased my search history. I’m a moderate and careful user, but the heap of information Google still has on me is downright scary.

I got out. Emigrated. My website is hosted by Jurgen Roels at Educorner. He is always helpful, friendly, fast, with servers in DC Oostkamp, a green Data Center. And my hosting package has a 1 GB mail account. So I moved there. My calendar is now on iCloud, for lack of anything better. I am using Firefox (again) with Adblock and a series of privacy add-ons. I’m not really publicly sharing any important pictures or documents (why should I?). I still have to find the right search engines, but there are some guides. And you can now reach me at koen {dot} roelandt {apetail} krowland {dot} net.