in miscellaneous, reviews

Moving Away From Google

Lately I’ve been thinking about the degree to which I’m willing to turn over my private data to web service companies. I’ve also been thinking about privacy in general, and while Canadian laws tend to protect consumer privacy to a greater degree than in the United States, I’ve concluded that I’m no longer happy using services where my private communications can be mined, sold, re-used, or thrown away when the service reaches the end of its life. That’s why I decided I would stop using Google for email and search.

I started this process a couple of weeks ago by drawing up a list of features I couldn’t do without. Those features had to be comparable to Google to make this effort worthwhile; regardless of my privacy concerns, if moving was a hassle or if I felt I had to compromise on services or ease of use, there wouldn’t be much point in making a change. The features I considered were:

  • Calendar syncing across all devices
  • A fast, responsive web interface
  • IMAP syncing across devices
  • Two-factor authentication or app passwords
  • Excellent archiving tools
  • Excellent spam detection
  • Conversation threading
  • Respect user privacy (namely mine!)
  • Doesn’t save search history
  • Servers outside of the US

Eventually, this list led me to choose Fastmail for email and calendars, and DuckDuckGo for search.

Why Fastmail

Fastmail

Switching email providers is more complicated than switching search engines. If you depend heavily on email making the decision to switch isn’t one you can make lightly. We (have to) use Outlook at work, so I don’t have a choice of platform for corporate communication, but for everything else I used Gmail for the last seven years. Google’s decision to shutter Reader was a serious blow, and that provided the push I needed to investigate other options. When companies provide services for free, its easier for them to decide to “sundown” those services (hi, Posterous!). I didn’t want to find myself in a similar situation with email.

Fastmail provides everything I was looking for in an email provider. Their web interface is sparse and uncluttered, but options are clearly labeled, which helps with recognition. Fastmail’s web interface even recognizes Gmail shortcuts, something I really only use to reply and compose messages, but shortcuts that are handy nonetheless.

Fastmail interface

Fastmail’s headquarters are in Australia, but they have servers in the United States. As an Australian company, they’re only subject to Australian law and are only required to turn over identifying information to Australian authorities. If you’re concerned about the NSA program to search every email that leaves or comes into the United States, Fastmail provides a bit of a safety net. Even though their servers are in the US, Fastmail maintains that while it’s possible the United States could convince Australian authorities to comply with surveillance attempts, it would be highly unlikely.

I’m glossing over a bit of detail here, so if this is important to you, check out Fastmail’s privacy policy or the blog post where the company outlines what the location of their servers means in terms of privacy and surveillance.

Pricing

Fastmail has a variety of plans, ranging from a $10/year light plan that provides 250MB email storage, to a $120/year premier plan that gives you 60GB email storage, mail and calendar sync, the ability to use your own domain, and priority support. I opted for the $40/year enhanced plan that comes with 15GB of email storage, mail and calendar sync, and the use of my own domain. If you’d like to try the service, Fastmail provides a free 60-day trial at the enhanced level. All of Fastmail’s plans are ad-free.

Mail Setup and Migration

I wanted to see how well I liked the service before shutting down my Gmail account entirely, so I created a personality (what Fastmail calls accounts) that would let me send mail from Fastmail, but have it appear like it comes from my Gmail address. In the two weeks since switching to Fastmail, I hadn’t experienced any problems with this setup until a couple of days ago, when mail sent via Gmail started bouncing back as undeliverable. After trying — and failing — to get a response from Fastmail via Twitter, I quick web search turned up an easy solution that only required toggling a switch in my settings. So far, so good.

Migrating mail from one service to another can be a challenge, particularly if you have to rely on proprietary import/export mailbox formats. Fortunately, Fastmail makes migration painless; all I had to do was enter my Gmail user name, password, and server settings, and their migration script moved 15,000 messages in just under four minutes. I opted to import my mail using the same mailbox structure I used in Gmail, but you can choose to import the messages directly into your Fastmail inbox, if you prefer.

Spam hasn’t been an issue since moving from Google to Fastmail. I haven’t received a single piece of spam since switching. Not one. I still can’t quite believe it.

Fastmail provides fast, dependable email service. They won’t mine your messages so they can serve targeted advertising, they promise to protect your privacy, and the service makes migration, managing multiple accounts, and setting up mail for your domain easy. Documentation is plentiful and easy to understand although support could be more responsive. Because you pay them to manage your mail, it’s in their interest to offer a secure, seamless, and reliable experience, and I believe they’ve done that.

Why DuckDuckGo

DuckDuckGo Logo

I’m a librarian who would rather enter terms into a simplified search box and retrieve “good enough” results for my personal use instead of using the library’s (excellent and vast) collection of resources. Convenience is important to me, and despite my search skills, if I can use a simple search and near-natural language to return a list of serviceable results, I’ll reach for a search engine over a database nine out of ten times.

Search Results

The results from DuckDuckGo are for the most part useful, and in the two weeks since I’ve used it as my primary search engine, I’ve been pleased with the results. It’s taught me a couple of things: (1) Google’s search history and tracking shaped my expectations around the relevance of search results more than I previously thought, and (2) I’m willing to trade increased relevancy for results that are free of spam and advertising.

DuckDuckGo provides instant answers, maps, image searching, and integration with Wolfram Alpha. If you type weather into DuckDuckGo, the search engine will retrieve a five-day forecast for your location (I use this more than you might think, especially during a heat wave). If your search term has a related Wikipedia entry, DuckDuckGo shows the results at the very top of the list and provides a list of links to related entries.

DuckDuckGo's results for intersectionality - note the helpful Wikipedia searches

DuckDuckGo’s results for intersectionality – note the helpful related topics

Google Search results

Google’s results for intersectionality contains a link and brief snippet of the Wikipedia entry.

DuckDuckGo is a fraction of the size of Google, and as a small team they can’t rely on a large team of engineers to build their search engine. Instead, the company uses their own web crawler to create an index based on hundreds of sources. It’s a comparable Google alternative and its principled stand on privacy pushes it to the top of the list as the search engine I’d most likely recommend to patrons…if I still had a job where I interacted with patrons.

Unlike switching email services, changing search engines will cost you nothing in terms of productivity. If you’re unconvinced, try DuckDuckGo for a week and draw your own conclusions.

What’s Next?

Over the next little while, I’ll try using Fastmail’s calendar as a replacement for Google Calendar, and I’ll look into finding a replacement for Google Drive and Google Hangouts. I take part in a few distributed committees that depend on Drive and Hangouts, and while I don’t feel hindered by this, I am reluctant to use any other email address with Google’s services. The team I manage uses Google Hangouts/Google Talk for communication, and I don’t want to be the kind of manager that foists change upon them for no reason other than my discomfort.

If you’re looking to switch services, start with something simple like switching search engines. I recognize that deciding to switch from a free email service to paid email hosting isn’t a decision that everyone can make lightly. However, if you care about your privacy, I wouldn’t recommend switching from one free email service to another. If you are using free services to send sensitive information of any sort, you’re granting these services permission to use your information in any way they see fit, from serving advertisements to cooperating with forced surveillance demands from government agencies. Weigh the benefits of convenience against privacy.

Lastly, If you’re a library worker, consider changing the default search engine on public workstations to DuckDuckGo instead of Google, Yahoo! or Bing. When teaching patrons how to sign up for email accounts, consider adding information about privacy and managing your digital footprint to the course syllabus, and help your patrons understand how to make more informed decisions about who to trust with their communications.

  1. Interesting thoughts. I particularly appreciate your call to educate patrons about the privacy/advertising implications of different email and web search providers.

    I fluctuate in how much I care about privacy vs the convenience offered by Google, but privacy hasn’t yet reached supremacy – I think my cross-device use of Chrome and the joy of single sign-on might have something to do with that 🙂

    What do you use as your primary browser? Do you have any hiccoughs with using multiple devices?

  2. Thanks, Laura.

    I use Safari as my primary browser at home. At work I still use Chrome, but I turn off browser sync. Lately Chrome has been causing system slowdowns on my work computer, so I’m considering moving back to Firefox.

    I haven’t had any issues with using browsers across multiple devices, but I’m curious to know what issues you’ve had.

  3. No real issues, primarily convenience from having Chrome sync and annoyance with Safari. I switch between my MacBook, iPad, and iPhone frequently and having autofill, bookmarks, maps, and browser history the same across all devices has made my life so much easier. Chrome’s translate function is a lifesaver – particularly living in Germany and not knowing all that much German 😉

    I use Firefox on my MacBook for debugging, but find it incredibly slow on the iPad. And it seems like everytime I open Firefox, Adobe wants me to update something; I don’t see that at all with Chrome (but maybe it’s happening in the background).

    Safari doesn’t sync as well for me and it takes a damn long time to open on my laptop. The mobile interface for Safari also doesn’t feel intuitive for me – although maybe that’s because I’m used to Chrome! Whenever I use Safari I end up cursing about some part of it.

    Chrome is also more stable for me. When I used Safari more frequently on my laptop, it went through periods of freezing or crashing all the time.

    For the moment, I think I need to accept that I’m Google-dependent 🙂

  4. I used to always use google apps when I setup email on a new domain until they starting charging. I have since found thexyz webmail and now setup custom domain name email there, it costs a lot less and feels good to be off the reliance of the big G.

  5. Solidarity. Ditched gmail, pay for mail via private host. Ddg is excellent in many ways. Don’t miss the G at all in 4+ years.

  6. I recently switched to using DuckDuckGo for search. I think because you (and maybe also Anna?) mentioned it. It’s been a pretty painless switch, although I’m annoyed by the iOS app because the screen you get when you open the app is a newsfeed of some kind. I have no idea why or how it’s constructed. But once I enter in my search term, it’s fine.

    I also recently switched back to Safari from Chrome. I was pleasantly surprised by how much faster Safari has been than Chrome, and by how well the iCloud-based tab syncing works for me. My computer runs hot with more than a few Chrome tabs open, and it seems like that behavior is getting worse and worse. But I keep Chrome on hand for video so that I don’t have to install Flash system-wide. I also installed a Safari extension to make DDG my default search engine.

    Spam filtering is my primary concern about the performance of any Gmail replacement. What my web host offers is beyond shitty, and that really negatively impacted my experience of trying to use Mail with a non-Gmail email account. So if I were assured that spam could be effectively filtered server-side, I’d be willing to give Mail a go again. Also, I love the idea of being able to use my own domain for email.

    I don’t actually use IM much at all. My video chat needs are largely met by FaceTime and Skype, and I suppose my IM needs could be addressed by iMessage and Skype as well. I only get hit up on Google Talk when my wife is bored (and usually in the next room).

    So now switching away from Google seems much more doable. But Google also seems to have the “utility by ubiquity” thing going for it, much like Microsoft Office and Facebook. There’s definitely something to be said for interoperability between your own hardware and software, and with other people. That’s part of why I switched back to Safari and stay in the Apple ecosystem.

    All that said, I’m trying to move my organization towards more fully utilizing our Google Apps account, because we’ve got a ridiculous mishmash of stuff going on right now. As a user, it’d be way easier for me to access that Google Apps stuff if I weren’t always being asked which Google account I meant to use. As it is, I’m leaning towards setting up a bunch of Fluid apps to isolate those services.

    (I think that’s enough from me for now.)

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