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Cover image for Gaining digital independence by breaking away from the Four Horsemen

Gaining digital independence by breaking away from the Four Horsemen

schmowser profile image Victor Warno ・6 min read

The beginning of a new year is always a good chance to tidy your digital self. That is what I started doing a few months ago by breaking away from Tech Giants like Google, Facebook, Amazon and Apple (also known as the Four Horsemen). I am convinced that the current state of the internet is not what the early creators of the web had in mind. So, I tried a few alternatives. It started with privacy in mind but it quickly turned into a panorama of equally good software that lives out there.

Browser

This is maybe the easiest but most effective change you can do to make your web experience safer. Instead of Google Chrome, you could use Mozilla Firefox and harden it. The configuration changes prevents Fingerprinting or Crypto-Mining.

I also added PrivacyBadger and uBlock as Firefox Addons to keep Tracking to a minimum.

Search Engine

The most successful service of the web! I admit that Google did a good job with optimizing their search engine. And for work related questions I still use Google. But I try not to use it for private matters to avoid recommendations and ads.

There are search engines that are build around privacy like Quant and DuckDuckGo. A special place in my heart is reserved for Ecosia based in Berlin which declared the mission to plant a tree with every search. DuckDuckGo also develops a browser but keep in mind that it is a US company where different rules for data protection apply.

Email

Changing email addresses seems like changing your physical address. And some websites make it hard to migrate to a new one. Google does a good job at integrating its services with your Gmail account, so it is probably even harder.

The alternatives I mention here usually cost a small amount per month. The more known email provider that offer encrypted mails are Protonmail and Tutanota. I went with a Berlin-based provider called Posteo. The service costs 1€ per month but is worth so much more. You even get to choose three aliases. Posteo also offers regex in email filters, if you like implementing that yourself.

If you do not want to do an overhaul of your emails right away, try out any of the service above for a month and see if it suits your needs.

Cloud

Talking about Google services, you probably do not want to miss out on the Cloud services like Google Docs and Google Photos. At least for the latter, you should consider switching your Cloud provider as Google introduces a storage limit this summer (2020).

One possibility is always self-hosting which you can easily do with Nextcloud. I plan to setup a Raspberry Pi and host Nextcloud myself. But if that is too much effort, you can always choose a provider to do it for you.

If you set up a Pi for Cloud services and have a spare laptop, feel free to check out my guide on using it as a monitor.

Office tools

Having opted out of Google's Cloud services, we also lose the ability to use the convenient Google Docs or Sheets apps. But we can transition to CryptPad for example. CryptPad even offers a code editor!

As I do not use Office tools that often, I only needed a solid note taking app that synchronizes over all my devices. Then, I stumbled upon Standard Notes which provides exactly that with the correct sense privacy.

Mobile OS

If you have a smartphone, chances are good that it is either an iPhone or and Android Phone. That means either Apple or Google has the sovereignty over your data. I played around with Ubuntu Touch but the missing user base shows in the lack of apps.

While refurbishing old devices, I flashed LineageOS with microG onto an old phone (OnePlus) and it worked right away. LineageOS is based on Android 10 and is built for longevity and security. Putting microG on top ensures that all apps from the Google Play Store work (as microG reimplements the strict underlying Google Play services).

While it is recommended to get apps from the open-source oriented F-Droid store, you can actually get missing apps from the Play Store alternative Aurora Store.

Map

Google Maps has become an essential part of a lot of Smartphones. So far that we often wonder how we found our way around before internet was invented. But there is also the OpenStreetMap project that is community-driven like Wikipedia for example is. An implementation for phones would be OsmAnd. It celebrated its 10th anniversary last year and offers features like Wikipedia integration and voice guidance.

YouTube

Finding an alternative to YouTube was maybe the hardest challenge. Almost everything concerning video and music is uploaded to Google's platform.

Recently, I enjoy live content on Twitch more regularly. But this lands you in the realm of another Tech Giant. So, what is the resort?

I decided to fall back to a Frontend to YouTube that limits sending data to Google. If you want to try it out, go to an Invidious instance like this one. Be cautious as I experienced slow loading times. I can recommend using the FreeTube application. It actually provides known features like saving videos and creating playlists.

The F-Droid App NewPipe is also worth mentioning.

Instant Messaging

So far, so good. Until now, everything could be done by yourself. But what happens if you what to leave Facebook as the main communication channel with everything Messenger, Instagram and WhatsApp? It is definitely harder to convince others to make a change.

But I gave it a shot. Signal is a more than satisfying messaging app which gained popularity in the recent Black Lives Matters movement. I even went a step further by hosting a Matrix server on Element. Therefore, I have the control who can join the server and how encryption will be enforced.

Operating System

Coming to the next Tech Giant to face: Microsoft. Windows 10 is known for collection data by default. You could change that or you could try out a Linux Operating System like Ubuntu - which is recommended to developers anyways! But there are all kinds of Linux flavors from Arch Linux for hardcore users to Pop!_OS which is based on Ubuntu but offers a more Windows-like UI.

If you do not want to do the breakup right away, you can setup a dual boot. Because I was actually scared switching completely as I do not want to miss my gaming nights. But the Linux community is very vibrant one. That's why they developed Lutris. And it works! I can now lose SR in Overwatch on a Linux system as well 😂

What else?

And I concede that my life will not be completely Google-free: I still have a Google Chromecast device because it is currently the only way how I can stream the content of an Oculus Quest to my TV. (In exchange, this is the only use case I use the Chromecast for.)

This list is for from complete. To achieve a complete surveillance-free digital life, you would also have to set up a VPN etc. For more information, I recommend checking out PrivacyTools and their subreddit.

In the end, it is always a trade-off between privacy and convenience. But I think every step to a self-determined digital identity will do good for the future of a free and fair internet.

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