James Gallagher

privacy and convenience

Published on June 10, 2020 in privacy

One of the aspects of the old web that I liked the most was the privacy. Yes, I acknowledge that the old web was not as secure as our web today. Twenty years ago, tools like Lets Encrypt did not exist, which made it difficult for people to secure their websites. I wasn't around to see the web twenty years ago, but I am going to assume a lot of people were exploited through malware that was distributed using the internet. I recall that when I was young, we always had anti-virus software installed; it seemed irresponsible not to.

With that aside, I can make my point. The old web was more private than the one we have today because our information was not as centralized.

When the web was just getting started, people were still recognizing its impact. It started off as a project at CERN, and even the shrewdest of businesspeople took a long while to recognize the potential of the web. It wasn't really until companies like Netscape came around that the commercial viability of web technologies became clear. In my research, I've found that many of the early sites on the web -- most, even -- were not created by companies. They were created by individuals who wanted to make their mark on this new thing that was called the internet.

At the start of the web, most individuals, like companies, didn't realize they could make money from the web. This meant that most of the content you saw was not trying to sell you anything. It was trying to inform you, or help you solve a problem. This is the web that I yearn for today: a web that isn't so commercialized.

As the web has grown more popular, companies have dominated. Smart people started to realize that the web could be monetized. Clicks could be correlated with dollars because the more people clicked on a site, the more likely they were to engage with that site. Metrics like "click-through rate" and "cost per click" started to become prominent as a new ecosystem of advertising was created. Digital advertising and marketing became its own field of specialty, and now there are thousands of people whose job it is to manage online advertising campaigns.

A small number of companies control a vast amount of what goes on through the internet. Google has what is essentially a monopoly on search. Indeed, platforms like DuckDuckGo and Bing exist, but if you want the best user experience, you'll need to go to Google. Not to mention the fact that Google offers so many other services as well, and so if you use something like Google Drive, it only makes sense for you to keep using Google Search. Why would you choose a different search engine if you're already a customer of Google?

This will not be groundbreaking news for most of my loyal readers. We've known that companies like Google and Microsoft have grown in prominence, and that they have developed massive influence on the way that we interact with content on the internet. But, it wasn't until recently that I started to consider how I could escape this ecosystem. Reading about the IndieWeb and all the people out there who are building new systems to support independent creators, I felt like my views on data ownership were antiquated.

I first started writing on the internet on Medium, because their user interface was great. But I quickly moved over to my own, self-hosted website, because I wasn't a fan of how Medium was treating its creators. They may say that they're on the side of creators, but what I saw was to the contrary. I'm glad I left Medium when I did. Every time I see a "James, you've reached your monthly article count" prompt (or whatever the text is), I know that I made the right decision. It wasn't too difficult for me to transition over to a self-hosted blog, and I enjoyed the customization it gave me. Yet this principle has yet to extend over to other parts of my online identity.

I have recently been considering a switch to ProtonMail for my personal emails. Do you know what is holding me back? I'm going to have to give up Superhuman to do it. If you're in-the-know in Silicon Valley, you'll think that I am a cliche. "Seriously, another person who uses Superhuman!" (Note: Before you ask, no, you're not getting an invite.) I signed up to Superhuman because I wanted to get through my emails faster, and they have helped me achieve that goal. I've saved a lot of time using Superhuman. The rub? Superhuman is built on top of GMail, where my emails are hosted.

This is a classic trade-off that everyone seems to have to make with privacy-focused alternatives to mainstream products. You need to give up some convenience in order to take a stand. This has proven to be a challenge for me. I would love for this blog post to be about how I took back control of my identity from big tech companies, but suffice to say I am struggling with it. I have made a few changes that were not so obtrusive, like changing my browser and installing a few useful extensions, but I am yet to make the leap away from tools like Google.

It's especially difficult for me because I am a technical writer. A lot of my work depends on using tools like Google. My company uses Google Drive to store our articles. We edit in Google Docs. We use extensions to optimize articles in Google Docs. That is not to say that I can't take my personal accounts elsewhere though. This is something that I'm still thinking a lot about.

Although individual products, like ProtonMail, may provide a good user experience, they rarely are able to meet the convenience of the products that they are trying to replace. ProtonMail is not as useful to me as GMail because GMail integrates with all the other tools I use. It works with Superhuman. I use it at work. So, if I replace my personal accounts on Google, I'm going to be faced with a big problem: I'll have to use Google products at work, then switch to another stack entirely for my personal products.

This post is me trying to figure out what I should do about my online privacy. How important is privacy to me?

I haven't thought a lot about my digital privacy in the past because I have always enjoyed the convenience of tools that are offered by companies like Google. Now I think is the time to change that. Privacy matters to me not because I have something to hide, but because I don't want my data to be analyzed by big companies who can profit from that data. If anything, I should be able to make money from the data that I give them. They collect all this data for free -- some companies even charge you to use their services -- and they can profit from it if they use it in the right way. Google can use my data to present me with better ads. Twitter could have used my data to show me better ads back when I used the platform actively.

It's not as if tomorrow I am going to give up the Big Five services, although I wish I could. It's unfortunate that their influence in our lives has become so prevalent that making any meaningful changes requires overcoming a lot of inertia. I've been using Google tools for years. I'd have to leave all of that behind and acquaint myself with new ones.

I don't trust big tech companies. I don't have a Facebook account. I deleted my Twitter history lately. I haven't used a lot of Microsoft's consumer-facing services. It's not that I don't like what these companies have to offer, but I just don't like to think what they will do with our data.

The one thing I do realize is that to make any change on the web will require us all stepping up and being the change we want to see in the world. What does this mean for me? It means I should be using more privacy-focused tools, because I believe firmly in the importance of decentralization on the web. The web was built to be decentralized. Why do you think it's called the web? It shouldn't be the case that a few companies have such a large influence on us that escaping their grasps is almost impossible. To ensure that this doesn't become an even greater problem, I need to take action myself.

My moving away from using GMail may not change how the entire world thinks about privacy. It will be an inconvenient move for me. But change can only happen if enough of us step up and start to say to ourselves "the way that these big companies are treating our data is not acceptable!" We need to fight for the web that we want to see. A web that is open. A web that is decentralized. A web that respects our privacy and provides a user-first experience. To quote from another one of my previous posts, let's bring back the old web. If we can't do it all at once, I would say that bringing back the privacy the old web has to offer is a good start. Then we can bring back Geocities.

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