Week 6: Blocking them all
A couple of months ago, I set out to answer the question of whether it’s possible to avoid the tech giants. Over the course of five weeks, I blocked Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple one at a time, to find out how to live in the modern age without each one.
To end my experiment, I’m going to see if I can survive blocking all five at once.
Not only am I boycotting their products, a technologist named Dhruv Mehrotra designed a special network tool that prevents my devices from communicating with the tech giants’ servers, meaning that ads and analytics from Google won’t work, Facebook can’t track me across the internet, and websites hosted by Amazon Web Services, or AWS, hypothetically won’t load.
I am using a Linux laptop made by a company named Purism and a Nokia feature phone on which I am relearning the lost art of T9 texting.
I don’t think I could have done this cold turkey. I needed to wean myself off various services in the lead-up, like an alcoholic going through the 12 steps. The tech giants, while troubling in their accumulation of data, power, and societal control, do offer services that make our lives a hell of a lot easier.
Earlier in the experiment, for example, I realized I don’t know how to get in touch with people without the tech giants. Google, Apple, and Facebook provide my rolling Rolodex.
So in preparation for the week, I export all my contacts from Google, which amounts to a shocking 8,000 people. I have also whittled down the over 1,500 contacts in my iPhone to 143 people for my Nokia, or the number of people I actually talk to on a regular basis, which is incredibly close to Dunbar’s number.
I wind up placing a lot of phone calls this week, because texting is so annoying on the Nokia’s numbers-based keyboard. I find people often pick up on the first ring out of concern; they’re not used to getting calls from me.
On the first day of the block, I drive to work in silence because my rented Ford Fusion’s “SYNC” entertainment system is powered by Microsoft. Background noise in general disappears this week because YouTube, Apple Music, and our Echo are all banned—as are Netflix, Spotify, and Hulu, because they rely on AWS and the Google Cloud to get their content to users.
The silence causes my mind to wander more than usual. Sometimes this leads to ideas for my half-finished zombie novel or inspires a new question for investigation. But more often than not, I dwell on things I need to do.
Many of these things are a lot more challenging as a result of the experiment, such as when I record an interview with Alex Goldman of the podcast Reply All about Facebook and its privacy problems.
I live in California, and Alex is in New York; we would normally use Skype, but that’s owned by Microsoft, so instead we talk by phone and I record my end with a handheld Zoom recorder. That works fine, but when it comes time to send the 386 MB audio file to Alex, I realize I have no idea how to send a huge file over the internet.
My Gmail alternatives—ProtonMail and Riseup—tell me the file is too large; they tap out at 25 MB. Google Drive and Dropbox aren’t options, Dropbox because it’s hosted by Amazon’s AWS and relies on Google for sign-in. Other file-sharing sites also rely on the tech giants for web hosting services.
Before resorting to putting the file on a thumb drive and dropping it in a IRL mailbox, I call up my tech freedom guru, Sean O’Brien, who heads Yale Law School’s Privacy Lab. He also does marketing work for Purism, the company that makes my laptop. O’Brien tries to avoid tech giants in favor of open source technologies, so I figure he might be able to help.
O’Brien directs me first to Send.Firefox.com, an encrypted file-sharing service operated by Mozilla. But… it uses the Google Cloud, so it won’t load. O’Brien then sends me to Share.Riseup.net, a file-sharing service from the same radical tech collective that is hosting my personal email, but it only works for files up to 50 MB.
O’Brien’s last suggestion is Onionshare, a tool for sharing files privately via the “dark web,” i.e. the part of the web that’s not crawled by Google and requires the Tor browser to get to. I know this one actually. My friend Micah Lee, a technologist for the Intercept, made it. Unfortunately, when I go to Onionshare.org to download it, the website won’t load.
“Hah, yes,” emails Micah when I ask about it. “Right now it’s hosted by AWS.”
As I encountered at the beginning of this experiment, Amazon’s most profitable business isn’t retail; it’s web hosting. Countless apps and websites rely on the digital infrastructure provided by AWS, and none of them are working for me this week.
Micah suggests I download it from Github, but that’s owned by Microsoft. Thankfully, O’Brien tells me I can download the Onionshare program directly from Micah’s server via command line on my Linux computer. He has to walk me through it step-by-step, but it works. I’m able to run Onionshare, drop my file into it, creating a temporary onion site; I send the URL for the onionsite to Alex so he can download it via the Tor browser. Once he downloads it, I tell Onionshare to “stop sharing,” which takes the onion site down, erasing the file from the web.
(In the end, Alex doesn’t even wind up using my audio for Reply All’s year-end finale. Sigh.)
I realize that’s a long story about sharing one file, but it’s a nice summation of what online tasks are like this week. There are workarounds for services offered by the tech giants, but they take extra research to find and are often more difficult to use. I wind up in strange parts of the internet, using Ask.com (formerly known as Ask Jeeves) as my search engine, for example, after I ixnay Google.com and realize DuckDuckGo is hosted by AWS.
But Ask.com is not necessarily a great replacement: it’s owned by IAC, the media and dating company behemoth. I’ve just traded one huge corporation seeking to monetize my searches for another, less competent one.
Some strange things are delightful: I discover that my Nokia phone can play the radio, so when I go running, I listen to NPR instead of my usual go-tos: Spotify, a podcast, or an audiobook. I’m planning a trip to South Africa, and wind up in charming conversations with the travel agents I have to call for help; it’s more costly and less efficient to book via a travel agency, but it’s the only option because travel-booking websites aren’t working for me.
Something not delightful is my Nokia 3310’s camera; it takes terrible, dark photos. I have an old Canon point-and-shoot digital camera, but I find I don’t take many photos this week—because without Facebook and Instagram, I don’t have anywhere to share them.
Sometimes I just can’t find a digital replacement. Venmo won’t work without a smartphone, so I pay our babysitter in cash. I start using a physical calendar to keep track of my schedule. When it comes to getting around, Marble Maps is an option, but I’m confused by the interface, so I stick to places I know, and buy a physical map as a back-up.
“It’s funny because Nokia used to have amazing navigation with Navtech,” a technologist says to me one day when I’m talking about how hard driving is without mapping apps, “but then they sold themselves to Microsoft.”
Fuck, I think, my Nokia 3310 might be made by Microsoft.
But it turns out, while Microsoft did buy Nokia’s mobile devices division for $7.2 billion in 2014, it sold Nokia’s “feature phone assets” two years later for a painful write-down, $350 million, to Foxconn (of Apple outsourcing fame) and to HMD Global, a Finnish firm helmed by a former Nokia executive. HMD Global now uses Nokia’s “intellectual property,” i.e. brand, to sell phones. Most “Nokia” phones are Android smartphones, but there’s a line of “classic” phones, including the 3310, which run an operating system called FeatureOS made by Foxconn.
My Nokia 3310 is not a tech giant phone, but it’s certainly tech giant adjacent.
To find out why the HMD Global is still selling dumbphones, I call its Hong Kong-based chief product officer, Juho Sarvikas. Sarvikas tells me that the company thought the core market for “classic” phones would be in Asia and Africa, where smartphones are less prevalent, but he says the devices have done surprisingly well in America.
“Digital well-being is a concrete area now,” he says. “When you want to go into detox mode or if you want to be less connected, we want to be the company that has the toolkit for you.”
“So these phones are the nicotine patch for smartphone addiction,” I say.
He laughs, “I’ve never put it that way before, but yes.”
I had assumed that the phones were for parents who wanted their kids to have phones sans a pipeline to social media and apps.
“That too,” says Sarvikas.
Many people I talk to about this experiment liken it to digital veganism. Digital vegans reject certain technology services as unethical; they discriminate about the products they use and the data they consume and share, because information is power, and increasingly a handful of companies seem to have it all.
When I meet a full-time practitioner of the lifestyle, Daniel Kahn Gillmor, a technologist at the ACLU, I’m not totally surprised to discover he’s an actual vegan. I am surprised by the lengths to which he’s gone to avoid the tech giants: he doesn’t have a cellphone and prefers to pay for things with cash.
“My main concern is people being able to lead autonomous healthy lives that they have control over,” Gillmor tells me during a chat via Jitsi, an open-source video-conferencing service that will work on any web browser. There’s no proprietary app you have to download and it doesn’t require you to create an account.
Gillmor hosts his own email and avoids most social media networks (he makes exceptions for Github and Sourceforge, because he’s an open source developer who wants to share his code with others). He refers to joining social networks as being “bait” that lures other people into “surveillance traps.”
Gillmor thinks people will have better lives if they aren’t being data-mined and monetized by companies that increasingly control the flow of information.
“I have the capacity to make this choice. I know a lot of people would like to sign off but can’t for financial reasons or practical reasons,” he tells me. “I don’t want to come across as chastising people who don’t make this choice.”
And there are definitely costs to the choice. “How things are structured determines the decisions people can make socially,” he says. “Like you didn’t get invited to a party [via Facebook] because you chose not to be part of a surveillance economy.”
Gillmor teaches digital hygiene classes where he tries to get people to think about their privacy and security. He usually starts the class by asking people if they know when their phones are communicating with cell towers. “Most people say, ‘When I use it,’ but the answer is, ‘anytime it’s on,’” he says.
He wants people to think about their own data trails but also when they are creating data trails for other people, such as when a person uploads their contacts to a technology service—sharing information with the service that those contacts might not want shared.
“Once the data is out there, it can be misused in ways we don’t expect,” he says.
But he thinks it’s going to take more than actions by individuals. “We need to think of this as a collective action problem similar to how we think about the environment,” he says. “Our society is structured so that a lot of people are trapped. If you have to fill out your timesheet with an app only available on iPhone or Android, you better have one of those to get paid.”
Gillmor wants lawmakers to step in, but he also thinks it can be addressed technologically, by pushing for interoperable systems like we have for phone numbers and email. You can call anyone; you don’t need to use the same phone carrier as them. And you can take your phone number to a different carrier if you want (thanks to lawmaker intervention).
When companies can’t lock us into proprietary ecosystems, we have more freedom. But that means Facebook would have to let a Pinterest user RSVP for an event on its site. And Apple would need to let you Facetime an Android user.
No one wants to give the keys out when they have customer lock-in.
The Amazon block continues to be the most challenging one for me.
My friend Katie is in town from New York; we have plans to meet for dinner one night at a restaurant near my house, an event marked on my physical calendar. On the morning we are to meet, I get an email from her to my Riseup account with the subject line, “What is happening.”
Katie had been sending me messages for days via Signal, but I hadn’t gotten them because Signal is hosted by AWS. When she didn’t hear from me, she sent an “ARE YOU GETTING MY TEXTS” email to Gmail, and got my away message directing her to my Riseup account.
I tell her dinner is still a go, but it’s a reminder of the costs of leaving these services. I can opt out, but people might not realize I’ve left, or might forget, even if they do know.
One day, I ask my husband, Trevor, who declined to do the block with me because he has “a real job,” what the hardest part of my experiment is for him. “I never know if you’re going to respond to my texts,” he says.
“What do you mean?” I ask. “What have I not responded to?
“I sent you some messages on Signal,” Trevor says, having forgotten I am off it.
The block provides constant conversation fodder, and I find myself in conversations more often because, at social gatherings, I don’t have a smartphone to stare at.
An Ivy League professor tells me he regularly employs a Google blocker. “I had to disable it when I paid my taxes because they have Google Analytics on the IRS website,” he says. “It was kind of horrifying.”
People under 35 are intrigued (and sometimes jealous) of life without a smartphone; people over 35 just seem nostalgic.
One night, I run into Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle, who is delighted to hear about the block. “It’s hard to get away from technology,” he says. “A friend was just telling me about trying to get a TV that wasn’t smart and didn’t have a microphone. It was impossible. He wound up getting a 27-inch [computer] monitor.”
Sometimes we make the choice to bring technology into our lives, but sometimes it’s forced upon us. Television makers have turned their products into surveillance machines that collect what we watch and what we don’t watch and sometimes even what we say, and that’s just how most TVs come now.
This week, I stop watching TV altogether because we don’t have cable and internet TV isn’t an option. I hadn’t meant to make this experiment a “rejection of all technology”—but it happens despite my intentions.
I’m most frustrated by this with my phone. I would love to be using a tech-giant free smartphone, but they aren’t really commercially available yet. If you want one, you need to be technically savvy and install a custom operating system on special phone models. That will hopefully change soon, with commercial offerings on the horizon from Eelo and Purism.
In the past, I would have assumed that idealistic projects like these were doomed, but there seems to be a heightened awareness these days of the dystopia created by the tech giants. Everywhere I look, I see criticism of the Frightful Five.
A writer I know pens an op-ed in the New York Times: “Hate Amazon? Try living without it.” (She didn’t actually live without it.) A CNBC tech reporter reveals she gave up Facebook and Instagram for three months and that it “made her a lot happier.” A CBS reporter tries and fails to quit Google. A Vice writer gives all the giants up for a month (but not as rigorously as I did). The New York Times writes about apps tracking people’s locations with horrifying regularity and granularity.
The tech giants laid down all the basic infrastructure for our data to be trafficked. They got us to put our information into public profiles, to carry tracking devices in our pockets, and to download apps to those tracking devices that secretly siphon data from them.
“Are America’s technology companies serving as instruments of freedom or instruments of control?” asks a Californian politician.
It’s in the air. The tech giants were long revered for making the world more connected, making information more accessible, and making commerce easier and cheaper. Now, suddenly, they are the targets of anger for assisting the spread of propaganda and misinformation, making us dangerously dependent on their services, and turning our personal information into the currency of a surveillance economy.
The world is flawed, and, fairly or not, the tech titans are increasingly being blamed.
A new book about “surveillance capitalism” by Harvard Business School professor Shoshana Zuboff argues that the extreme mining and manipulation of our data for profit is making an inescapable panopticon the driver of our economy.
Zuboff’s publicist sent me an advance copy as an e-book, and I’ve really been enjoying it, but I have to put it down this week because I can’t read it on my Kindle. Instead, I’m reading a physical book—Henry Thoreau’s Walden, which I ordered from Barnes & Noble. It too is full of calls to re-immerse ourselves in the natural world and not get too caught up in the distractions of modern life.
But, because it was published in 1854, it warns people to get away from work and newspapers rather than smart devices and screens.
For ideas about what the government can do about all this, I call Lina Khan, a fellow at the Open Markets Institute who wrote a blockbuster paper on the need to regulate Amazon’s monopoly power. (At least it’s a blockbuster by academic standards.)
Khan is in New York doing an academic fellowship at Columbia University where she is working on more papers. Khan doesn’t have a Prime account and avoids Gmail. Right before I call her, I see a tweet from a video producer at the Washington Post who got bombarded with baby ads after she had a stillborn delivery.
“Please, Tech Companies, I implore you: If your algorithms are smart enough to realize that I was pregnant, or that I’ve given birth, then surely they can be smart enough to realize that my baby died, and advertise to me accordingly — or maybe, just maybe, not at all,” she wrote in yet another reminder that privacy invasions have real harms.
I recount the story to Khan at the beginning of our call and say that this type of anger seems to be on the rise.
“The tech companies’ own actions are prompting the tide to turn. It is a belated reckoning, but it seems to be a reckoning nonetheless,” she says. “Companies started monetizing user data far before most users even realized their data was valuable, let alone being collected by private actors. If users had been told that the price for access would be near-total surveillance, would they have agreed? Would companies have been forced to offer different business models?”
Khan thinks law enforcers need to get involved to keep these companies from using anti-competitive tactics to dominate the business landscape, as public officials did in the ‘90s against Microsoft.
“Several of the big tech firms have acquired rivals and inhibited competitors through predatory conduct,” she says, a topic that’s been in the news recently with the exposure of Facebook emails where CEO Mark Zuckerberg talks about cutting off then-viral video service Vine’s access to the Facebook social graph. “They have engaged in practices that, a few decades ago, were widely considered monopolistic. We need investigations by the Department of Justice, the Federal Trade Commission, or state attorneys general.”
Europe is on the case, its regulators fining Google and saying Facebook can’t combine users’ data from Facebook, WhatsApp, and Instagram without their consent. But antitrust regulators in the U.S. have stayed away from these companies because their services are cheap or free, so they’re perceived as pro-consumer, which is ultimately what regulators want to encourage. But how does that work when the “consumer” is what the company is selling?
An uncomfortable idea I keep coming up against this week is that, if we want to get away from monopolies and surveillance economies, we might need to rethink the assumption that everything on the internet should be free.
So when I try to create a fourth folder in ProtonMail to organize my email and it tells me that I need to upgrade from a free to a premium account to do so, I decide to fork over 48 euros (about $50) for the year. In return, I get a 5 GB email account that doesn’t have its contents scanned and monetized.
However, I’m well aware that not everyone has $50 dollars to spare for something that they can easily get for “free,” so if that’s the way things go, the rich will have privacy online and the poor (and most vulnerable) will have their data exploited.
The previous week, my 1-year-old, Ellev, started saying that Alexa is “scary” and “spooky,” concepts she learned while trick-or-treating. It’s not unreasonable; I can see how a disembodied voice that’s always there and always listening would be disconcerting to a toddler—or really any normal human being.
But this week, she keeps crying for Alexa, wanting her to play “Baby shark” and other music that is otherwise absent from our home. “I miss Alexa,” she says, and I feel terrible both for depriving her and for making her dependent on an AI at such a young age.
On the last day of the block, Trevor and I are flying to New York, and he’s begging me to end the experiment early so we can use the iPad to keep Ellev happy. However, I’m adamant about maintaining the blockade for the six-hour flight.
“I’m changing my seat to a different part of the plane,” Trevor warns, kiddingly.
Trevor charges the iPad up in case my will falters. But I hold strong. We read books with Ellev, doodle on a magnetic drawing board, sing songs, and play for at least an hour with sticky, flexible “Wizzle sticks” that come in her Alaska Airlines snack pack. She sleeps for the last hour and a half of the flight, something she doesn’t usually do if there is an iPad available.
That was Ellev’s 26th flight. In the taxi after we land, Trevor turns to me and says, “That’s the easiest flight we’ve ever had with her.”
We get to our Airbnb in Brooklyn, which I booked months before the experiment. (It should technically be banned because Airbnb is hosted by AWS.) There’s a lock box on the outside of the apartment building that I open with a four-digit code. Inside is a key that gets us into the building and the same four-digit code opens a digital lock on the apartment’s door. I had written down the address and code on a piece of paper knowing I wouldn’t be able to access the Airbnb website.
We get in with no problem. We’re starving so head to a restaurant we passed in our taxi. Afterward, we need groceries, but Ellev is melting down, so I head to the Airbnb while Trevor goes to shop. I get into the building with the key, but once Ellev and I climb four flights of stairs to the apartment, I realize I don’t have the piece of paper with the door code on it—and I don’t remember the code.
Ellev is crying and trying to turn the doorknob. I start to feel that desperate panic of an earlier age that nowadays accompanies a dying smartphone battery.
My laptop is inside the locked apartment. I use a password manager, stored on that laptop, to get into all my online accounts, so I couldn’t get into Airbnb on another computer even if I wanted to toss in the towel on the blockade.
A masochistic part of my brain reminds me that I am in this mess because I used a site hosted by AWS. I could have just booked a normal hotel room via the phone, and then I would be picking up a new key card at this very moment. Technology creates the problems that technology solves, and vice versa.
While soothing Ellev, I try a bunch of different combinations on the lock based on my vague recollection of what the four numbers are. One of them works. As soon as I get inside, I plug my iPhone into the charger, relieved I’ll resume using it the next day.
Critics of the big tech companies are often told, “If you don’t like the company, don’t use its products.” I did this experiment to find out if that is possible, and I found out that it’s not—with the exception of Apple.
These companies are unavoidable because they control internet infrastructure, online commerce, and information flows. Many of them specialize in tracking you around the web, whether you use their products or not. These companies started out selling books, offering search results, or showcasing college hotties, but they have expanded enormously and now touch almost every online interaction. These companies look a lot like modern monopolies.
Since the experiment ended, I’ve resumed using the tech giants’ services, but I use them less. I deliberately seek out alternatives to do what I can, as a consumer, not to help them monopolize the market.
But the experiment went beyond that for me; it made me reexamine the role of tech in my life more widely. It broke me of that modern bad habit of swiping through my phone looking for a distraction rather than engaging with the people around me or seeking stimulation in my real world environment.
I deleted time-wasting apps like Words With Friends and a Hearts app. I look at Instagram less often, such that I see friends have tagged me in their stories, but don’t see the stories because they’ve already reached their 24-hour expiration mark.
I turn my phone off around 9pm each night and don’t turn it back on until I really need it the next day. It took two weeks of using my “nicotine patch” dumb phone, but I eventually lost the urge to start my day by reaching for my smartphone on the bedside table.
My iPhone tells me in my weekly “Screentime” reports that my usage is down significantly, to under 2 hours per day. My phone feels less like an appendage and more like a tool I use when necessary. I still love using Google Maps or Waze when I’m driving to an unfamiliar place, texting far-away friends and family members, and sharing a beautiful photo on Instagram—but I have regained the ability to put my phone away.
I went through the digital equivalent of a juice cleanse. I hope I’m better than most dieters at staying healthy afterward, but I don’t want to be a digital vegan. I want to embrace a lifestyle of “slow Internet,” to be more discriminating about the technology I let into my life and think about the motives of the companies behind it. The tech giants are reshaping the world in good and bad ways; we can take the good and reject the bad.
I ask Trevor if he notices anything different about me since the experiment.
“You never know what time it is anymore,” he jokes, but it’s true. I look at my phone infrequently and there are rarely clocks around, personal devices apparently having made them obsolete. I am more in the moment, but less aware of the actual hour and minute.
This is easily solvable: I’ll get a watch. It definitely won’t be a smart one.
The Goodbye Big Five series was brought to you by:
Reporter: Kashmir Hill (and her family)
Video Producer: Myra Iqbal
Editors: Andrew Couts, Tim Marchman, Kelly Bourdet
The Video Team: Danielle Steinberg, Ben Reininga, Santiago Garcia
The Art Team: Jim Cooke, Therese McPherson
Video Animator: Dominic Elsey
Technologist: Dhruv Mehrotra, whose work was supported by a grant from the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism