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I Cut the ‘Big Five’ Tech Giants From My Life. It Was Hell

Goodbye Big FiveReporter Kashmir Hill spent six weeks blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from getting her money, data, and attention, using a custom-built VPN. Here’s what happened.  

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 needed A LOT of stuff to replace my usual tech giant devices
Photo: Myra Iqbal

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.

My mother-in-law was not impressed with the Nokia’s photos
Screenshot: Maureen Taravella

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.

Daniel Kahn GIllmor—ACLU technologist, digital vegan, and real vegan
Photo: Santiago Garcia

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.

Lina Khan and author having a Skype call (after the experiment ended)
Screenshot: Kashmir Hill

“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.

Graphic: Jim Cooke (Gizmodo)

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

Source: Kotaku.com

I Cut Apple Out of My Life. It Was Devastating

Goodbye Big FiveReporter Kashmir Hill spent six weeks blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from getting her money, data, and attention, using a custom-built VPN. Here’s what happened.  

Week 5: Apple

When I first conceived of this experiment—cutting the tech giants out of my life one-by-one—I hadn’t thought to include Microsoft (because I use very few of their products) or Apple (because I use so many of theirs).

I have two MacBook Airs, one for personal use and one supplied by my work. I have an iPhone that I nicknamed “tech appendage.” My husband and I have a shared iPad2 that I use at the gym and that we rely on to keep our 1-year-old daughter happy on flights and long car rides.

Apple is my gateway to almost all things digital. I am physically touching an Apple device for the majority of any given day. Being asked to remove Apple from my life was like being asked to remove a part of my body that was incredibly useful but that I could live without, like a finger or an eyeball.

Why cut Apple from my life? Yes, it’s an incredibly valuable and powerful company, the world’s most valuable company according to the stock market most days, but it’s generally thought of as a good guy as far as the big tech companies go. Beyond tax avoidance schemes, questionable labor practices abroad, its problematic business in China, the iCloud downpour that led to the Fappening, and, most recently, the great FaceTime bug of 2019, Apple has generally evaded negative press.

In fact, Apple has become a kind of privacy regulator for the rest of the tech industry. It recently punished Facebook and Google by rendering their internal iOS apps unusable after the two companies abused special all-seeing powers to spy on iPhone users for “research,” illustrating just how powerful Apple is, with the ability to control what code people can run on their own phones.

Apple makes its money by selling hardware (and taking a generous cut from app sales), not by selling its users’ data or running ads (at least, not anymore). Its CEO, Tim Cook, is going around putting other tech giants on blast, making speeches decrying the surveillance economy, lambasting the “data industrial complex,” and calling for federal privacy legislation to rein in bad actors.

Now, this may well be posturing for marketing purposes, but Cook’s smack talk rankled Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg enough that he asked his executives to stop using iPhones, according to reports, though Facebook says it just encourages employees to use Android because “it is the most popular operating system in the world.”

While Android is used by the majority of people in the world, I’m one of the Macheads. Gizmodo editors were not sympathetic to my reliance on Apple, however, and insisted I include the company in my experiment to live without the tech giants.

So I cut the ‘tech appendage’ off this week—and damn, it hurts.

In addition to abandoning all my iProducts, I am blocking myself from interacting with Apple in any way, using a custom VPN designed for me by technologist Dhruv Mehrotra. The VPN prevents my devices from communicating with the 16,777,216 IP addresses controlled by Apple, rendering iCloud and any Apple apps defunct—though I won’t have much occasion to use Apple apps as they’re not, for the most part, available on non-Apple devices.

I immediately run into a pretty big problem: What phone am I going to use? I can, of course, use an Android phone, but I’ll soon be blocking all the tech giants at once, so I’d rather get a phone I can use for the last two weeks of the experiment. Unfortunately, the smartphone market is currently a duopoly. It’s basically impossible to get a smartphone that is not part of the Android or Apple ecosystems.

Windows phone bit the dust. Firefox phone? R.I.P. Even Blackberry runs on Android now. I visit a T-Mobile store in downtown San Francisco asking if they have flip phones or anything that isn’t Apple or Android. They don’t and recommend visiting Target.

Gizmodo’s managing editor, Andrew Couts, tries to help me. He reaches out to a company called Sailfish, an independent smartphone operating system out of Europe, but it doesn’t respond to his emails until too late. I reach out to a European nonprofit called Eelo that espouses “freedom from data slavery.” The founder, Gaël Duval, made it his mission in 2017 to leave Apple and Google, but the nonprofit doesn’t have a phone I can buy; it is still a DIY operation for developer types. Duval says he can send me a prototype Eelo phone, but it too doesn’t arrive in time.

So when the Apple block starts, I don’t yet have a phone, and I am freaking out.

I do have a computer, one that I can use for the final two weeks of the experiment: a Librem 13, made by a company called Purism that is fiercely opposed to the tech giants, avoiding them like the plague in a self-proclaimed “liberation effort.” The bulk of my job can be done online, use a browser and some browser-based apps. I can also use it to make calls, video chat, and send texts over messaging apps like Signal. So a laptop is all I really need to get by—theoretically, at least.

The Purism is pure black with the company’s white square logo appearing only on a single key on the keyboard and hidden on the bottom of the computer. It’s made of brushed aluminum like a Mac laptop, but the company anodizes it because “Apple has a monopoly on raw aluminum,” says Purism founder Todd Weaver. (Not an actual monopoly, but in the perception sense.)

The 13-inch Librem (which means “freedom book”) has a GNU/Linux operating system, an Apple-level price tag of $1,399, and a lot of privacy-and-security bells and whistles—some of which throw me: I can’t get the camera and microphone on my laptop to work for a video chat one day, because I don’t see that the computer has a tiny kill switch for them, and that they’re switched on.

Purism is a new player in the computer hardware space; it registered as a social purpose corporation in 2017, meaning it considers company mission when making decisions rather than just profit maximization. Its 50 or so employees work remotely. (One of them is Eugen Rochko, the lead developer of Mastodon, a Twitter-like social network hosted by its users that I failed to take to when I was blocking Facebook.)

About a month before the Apple block started, Weaver met me in downtown San Francisco to lend me a Librem and to show me how to use it. I was apprehensive because when I think “Linux,” I think of hardcore programmers and imagine data streams flowing down the screen a la The Matrix, but Weaver showed me that I didn’t need to know command line language to operate it.

“Convenience is the root problem to solve,” Weaver tells me. “You have to go out of your way and inconvenience yourself to avoid these tech giants that are enslaving people’s data. We’re trying to give people your experience but without having to do the research.”

Weaver is a serial entrepreneur who has been a computer geek since the 1990s. Like other technologists I met during this experiment, he’s part of the free software movement, people who feel that all tech should be interoperable and open to review, and who feel that users should have the right to own and control their own data.

This group of technologists tends to dislike Apple because it is a walled tech garden that uses its own operating system (iOS), its own software (a song you buy on iTunes isn’t easily listened to on a non-Mac device), its own screws (so that people can’t easily open the innards of devices they own), and its own hardware, powered by (always changing) chargers that work only for Apple devices. Hell, it’s the company that eliminated the headphone jack. In Weaver’s ideal world, you wouldn’t be stuck in individual companies’ ecosystems.

“Society is now realizing we’re under the control of these big tech companies,” says Weaver. He tries to come up with a real-world analogy for what it’s like to use Apple devices rather than an open source device. “In the physical world, you can own your home, which means you have the keys. In the digital world, Apple controls the keys to your device. You are renting it, like you rent a hotel room. They control the keys, so they can do anything to your device whenever they want without your consent or knowledge.” (As iPhone-using employees at Google and Facebook now well know.)

Computers once sat only on desks, and we would be away from them for days and hours at a time. But then they became mini-computers we held and carried with us. And then they became even smaller computers that we can wear, nestled directly against our skin, pulsating gently against our wrists when there’s something we need to know. “Computers are moving closer and closer to our brains,” Weaver says. “So I pose the question: Would you in the future like a brain [chip] from Google, Apple, Facebook, or some other big tech company, or would you like to control your own brain [chip]?”

Weaver’s worry about the path of the tech industry increased after his two daughters were born. He imagined the harms they could suffer as a result of rampant data-mining. He thinks his daughters may well get chips in their brains one day, and he doesn’t want the data on those chips to be owned by a tech company. So in 2014, he started working on what would eventually become Purism.

Purism could have been my one-stop shop for tech-giant-free products had I waited a bit. It plans to start selling a smartphone soon, but unfortunately for my experiment, it’s not slated for release until this spring.

It’s now been a month since I picked up the Librem, and I haven’t used it since then. That turns out to be a problem for my Apple block: When I boot it up, it asks for my decryption password. I remember my username and password to sign into the computer, but that password is not working for this initial decryption.

Most Librem users have two different passwords, one for decryption and another for log-in to make them as secure as possible. I can’t remember whether Weaver set up the password for me or if I had set it up. Either way, I hadn’t recorded it or written it down, and now I’m fucked: I don’t have a working phone or computer.

For the first time in my weeks-long experiment, I have to admit utter failure. I boot up my MacBook Air and email the Purism team asking for help. After a suggestion that I try “Password” doesn’t pan out, the company graciously sends its chief security officer to my house with a new Librem, though he has to drive in from Petaluma, so he won’t arrive for more than an hour.

I am feeling very frazzled, but this seems like a good time to head to Target and get a phone. Luckily, I know how to get there without a mapping app.

Ironically enough, the day before the Apple block started, my husband and I had bought a pair of new iPhone XSes as early Christmas presents to one another. It came to $2,800 total for two phones, each with 256 GB of storage to hold the glorious photos they can take with their “Neural engine”-enhanced cameras. (Apple takes the bite out of the price tag by offering people no-interest loans from Citizens Bank so they can space payments out over two years.) The process of moving from one iPhone to another iPhone is incredible. You use your new phone to take a photo of a bunch of swirling dots on your old phone and Apple moves most of what you need from one phone to the other like magic. The transfer, like the new phone itself, is sleek, smooth, and effortless. You don’t even have to type a passcode into the new iPhone; you can set up Face ID so it just opens up when you look at it.

Eighteen hours later, however, I have abandoned that glorious piece of the future and am buying its opposite: a phone with a shitty camera, a ‘keyboard’ that consists only of number buttons, no touch screen, no voice dictation, and no apps.

My only choice at Target for a non-Apple, non-Google phone is the Nokia 3310, a device originally from the early aughts that was re-released in 2017—almost, I think, as a joke. The Target clerk, whose tag reads Jacob L., but who tells me his name is actually Jacob Day, seems very excited that I am going to buy this phone, as if it’s an event that doesn’t happen often. He tells me how Nokia keeps making the 3310 because of memes about how indestructible it is.

The Nokia 3310 4G is incredibly light, slightly larger than my palm, and encased in bright orange plastic. It comes in a tiny box covered in bright pop art featuring a snake, which is a shout-out to a pre-installed game on the phone that evokes nostalgia in countless people I talk to this week who played the game on their Nokia phones a decade ago. It costs just $60, or $1,340 less than the phone I bought the day before.

It’s not an easy transition. Figuring how to get my SIM card into it requires more research on my banned MacBook Air and a trip to a T-Mobile store.

Typing on the device is excruciating. It has 15 buttons: 0-9, *, #, left, right, and enter. If you want to type “c”, you have to press 1 three times. (Or you can turn on T9 predictive text, which I do, so that I can press 1-1-8 and have it guess that I mean “act,” “cat,” “bat,” or “abu,” in that order.)

It is basic as hell, but incredibly you can access the internet on it, very slowly, via a browser from Opera.

As I leave T-Mobile, I send my husband, Trevor, a text; his is the only number I have memorized, and the new phone doesn’t have my contacts. “Hello from my new phone” is exhausting to compose, and I have to stand still while I write the message. I can’t believe people actually wanted to text rather than call when texting was this hard to do.

Trevor doesn’t text me back. Rude.

I try to explore the phone while walking home, but it’s so hard to do without a touch screen that I almost turn my ankle twice on the sidewalk before I give up.

When I get home, I find out why I haven’t gotten a text from Trevor: There are two iMessages from him on the notification screen of my (now banned) iPhone. Apple still has iMessaging turned on for me and is automatically routing text messages from people with iPhones to its own messaging service.

Still using my damn MacBook Air, I Google “how to turn off iMessaging.” I turn it off, but it causes problems for the rest of the experiment; some people’s texts just don’t get to me, particularly if they are sent to group threads in which all the people have iPhones except me. It’s harder to get out of Apple’s ecosystem than Google’s.

While I have the iPhone out, I manually enter some of my most important contacts into the Nokia, as there doesn’t seem to be another way to quickly move them.

At noon, Purism’s CSO Kyle Rankin arrives with my replacement computer. I show him my new Nokia, lamenting the iLoss.

“[Apple] is like any gated community. It’s very beautiful and the produce is nice, but it’s hard to leave,” says Rankin. He compares switching devices to changing cars. “There are kinks to get used to but you know the basics. The gear shifter might be in a new place, but you figure it out.”

I agree. Using the Librem laptop over the week is like adjusting to a new car, but using the Nokia is different: It’s like driving a new car in another country where they drive on the other side of the road. It’s very hard to get used to, and eventually, I realize I’m being too hard on myself.

I don’t have to block Google this week, so I can just use an Android smartphone. I discover five (!) of them tucked away in various cupboards in my house; the peril of being a tech journalist is apparently accumulating Androids like other people accumulate conference tote bags. I choose the one that looks to be in the best condition: a Samsung Nexus Galaxy I last used in 2012.

I discover it’s super easy to export the few contacts I had entered into the Nokia to my Android—I send them in seconds via Bluetooth. But it’s far more complicated to get my contacts out of Apple.

I have to turn on my iPhone again, back up all my contacts to iCloud, sign into iCloud on the Librem laptop—which doesn’t work until I turn off the VPN—then export all the contacts from iCloud to a VCF file, plug the Android phone into the Librem computer, and finally, import that file to the phone. Apple’s garden wall is so tall it feels almost insurmountable.

I discover through this exercise that I have 1,528 saved contacts on my iPhone, which is ludicrous. Scrolling through the list of contacts, I encounter people I haven’t talked to in years, people I don’t remember, and one-time entries that I no longer need, like “Naim Has Baby Carrier” (an Uber driver whose car we left an Ergo in), “NYC Airbnb” (self-explanatory), and “Victor of Tulum” (I have no idea).

I whittle this vast list down to “people I actually talk to,” which turns out to be 143 people. That strikes me as funny because it is basically Dunbar’s number, or the number of people that we can really know and maintain stable relationships with, according to British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. Modern technology lets us rack up thousands of friends, but if you whittled your contacts down to the ones most important to you, you might find it’s close to 150 too.

I export the contacts for those 143 people to my Samsung Galaxy. For some reason, I find it comforting to have a manageable number of people in my phone even if it means I won’t have contact information should I suddenly need to get in touch with someone random. There’s something to be said for changing devices regularly, like moving houses and forcing you to reconsider what you really need.

After that, I’m finally set up in the non-Apple world and can put anything with a fruit logo in the cupboards that formerly held all my Androids. I’m happy to report that, unlike with the other tech giants, if you’re able to wean yourself off Apple’s products, you can avoid the company. Apple tries to talk to my devices 11,000 times this week, but a good chunk of those attempts are on the first day when I am rampantly cheating.

When you don’t use Apple devices, Apple doesn’t track you. But it does make it very obvious to everyone that you no longer have an Apple device.

“Are you using an Android?” asks my friend Katie in the middle of a conversation by text. When I text my friend Chiko—whose new baby I discovered when I brought my Facebook account back from the dead—to ask her how things are going, she’s alarmed.

“Are you traveling? Why is this green?” she texted back.

Apple makes it very clear who else has an iPhone; text messages sent from an iPhone arrive as blue bubbles whereas all other messages come in green bubbles. The blue messages are iMessages, and while it’s important users know that, because those texts are end-to-end encrypted while the green messages aren’t, it’s also become a cultural marker that signals your tech class. Blue is better. Videos that are sent in a blue bubble are clear and beautiful, whereas the ones in a green bubble are a blurry mess.

I am not blue anymore. I am now green. I am out of the gated community and I feel some weird technological shame.

I try to call Chiko multiple times over a few days and she doesn’t pick up (understandable, as she has a new baby). Then one day, she tries to call me back by Facetiming me, which I miss and wouldn’t have been able to pick up anyway. “I want you to hear my daughter crying,” she texts.

“Can you do a Google hangout,” I text back.

“I don’t have Google Hangout,” she writes. “When are you going to get your iPhone back? I don’t like this.”

Next up: Blocking all the tech giants—Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple—at once. God help me.

This series was supported by a grant to Dhruv Mehrotra from the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism.

Source: Kotaku.com

I Cut Microsoft Out of My Life—or So I Thought

Goodbye Big FiveReporter Kashmir Hill spent six weeks blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from getting her money, data, and attention, using a custom-built VPN. Here’s what happened.  

Week 4: Microsoft

When I initially planned to block all the tech giants from my life, I hadn’t thought to include Microsoft, mostly because Microsoft is—these days, at least—rarely on the receiving end of criticism for destroying civilization as we know it.

Microsoft’s days as a tech supervillain are a distant memory, dating back to the 1990s when 20 states, along with the U.S. Department of Justice, assembled like Voltron to take the tech company down for violating antitrust law.

But then I’m reminded that Microsoft is a web hosting giant when I see news in August that it threatened to pull its hosting services from Gab because of the social network’s anti-Semitic content. And since November, Microsoft has been competing with Amazon and Apple for the title of most-valuable public company in the world. This all forced me to admit that Microsoft is still fully deserving of its inclusion in the “Frightful Five” along with Amazon, Google, Facebook, and Apple. If nothing else, I think, it will be interesting to see the long-term effect of that decades-old antitrust crackdown: Will it be easier to block Microsoft because the government tried, at the turn of the 21st century, to prevent it from unfairly dominating the computing industry?

To prevent myself from using any of Microsoft’s services, I connect my phone, computer, and smart devices to a custom VPN designed for me by technologist Dhruv Mehrotra; it blocks the 21,573,632 IP addresses controlled by Microsoft. If you’re like me and exclusively use Macs, you might think you don’t use Microsoft very often. But it operates the workhorses of social media—LinkedIn, Skype, and Github—as well as a big distraction from work in the form of Xbox. During the block, I can’t use any of them, nor can I connect to websites and apps hosted by Microsoft Azure, its rapidly expanding cloud business.

Even though I don’t use any Windows machines, don’t own an Xbox, and don’t turn to Microsoft Office for document creation, the company still turns out to be tricky to block, not so much online, but in the real world, where Dhruv and his VPN can’t help me. In one surprise example, I run into the Redmond giant in my car—a 2015 Ford Fusion, which I have from a long-term rental service called Canvas. I’ve been driving it for weeks but only now notice a placard on the center console that reads, “SYNC, powered by Microsoft.” Turns out, Microsoft’s technology powers the car’s entertainment and navigation system, so I have to drive to work in silence.

(This is actually one of the last Ford models where that’s the case; Ford dumped Microsoft reportedly because its software was too buggy. Now Ford offers services from Google and Amazon. “Ford and Alexa, a match made in tech heaven,” claims Ford’s website, which sounds like anything but my idea of the divine.)

When I tell Dhruv about this, he points out that there are many more places I could potentially be using Microsoft services without realizing it, like when I buy coffee at a coffee shop that uses Windows as the operating system for its payment system or when I use public transportation that uses Microsoft to power its back-end services. As the New York Times points out, Microsoft is “mainly a supplier of technology to business customers.”

That means that Microsoft is virtually impossible to completely avoid without also retreating from society entirely, which, at least for me, isn’t an option. Just as Amazon was inescapable on the web, Microsoft is unavoidable IRL.

So Microsoft is in many ways a “B2B” company these days, and it’s undeniable that I rely on services at some point this week that use its services when I patronize restaurants, coffee shops, stores, or anywhere else where monetary transactions happen. But in terms of direct consumption of Microsoft products, this is the easiest week in my tech-giant-blocking experiment so far. Microsoft is still a behemoth but one whose impact is hard for me to measure in this experiment, because many of its billions of dollars come from products like Windows Servers that are used to power government and corporate infrastructure, rather than being used directly by consumers.

Not to say consumers aren’t using Microsoft products on a large scale: Windows still accounts for 40 percent of all operating systems accessing U.S. government websites, including iOS and Android, which is a pretty good indication of its general prevalence. It’s just not an issue for this consumer. As I admitted in the intro to this series, it reflects my own tech biases. Avoiding the company while functioning in society is probably impossible, but it is possible, I find, to avoid personally using Microsoft’s products.

Maybe this is the way things would have gone regardless of what happened in the 1990s. Maybe this was the kind of company Microsoft was fated to become. Or maybe, if the government hadn’t intervened decades ago to keep Microsoft from dominating the world of computers, we’d all still be using Microsoft-owned Hotmail and surfing friend feeds on Microbook and posting our photos to Microgram and Binging our latest health concern.

That decades-old Microsoft antitrust case was sprawling and complicated in the way that any legal matter is, but it boiled down to a rather simple catalyst. Windows was the dominant operating system 30 years ago, as it is on PCs still today, and the internet was only just starting to develop. In 1994, a company called Netscape released a popular internet browser called Navigator that it was selling for about $50, and Microsoft decided to undercut it.

To try to ensure its dominance in the growing business that was the internet, Microsoft developed its own internet browser called Internet Explorer, gave it away for free, and insisted that it be bundled with Windows. So when you bought a computer—which was probably operating Windows because most then computers did—you’d get Internet Explorer installed by default the same way you get Safari pre-installed on your iPhone or the Google Play Store pre-installed on your Android phone, which gave Internet Explorer a distinct advantage.

Microsoft was using its powerful control of the computer operating system supply line to muscle its way into controlling people’s internet experience (Netscape eventually made Navigator free as well, helping to lay the groundwork for an internet where almost everything is “free” but monetized instead via our attention and data.) Regulators worried that Microsoft was using its dominant position in the software industry to crush competitors and would-be competitors, and so they sued.

Giving Internet Explorer to people for free was seen as ultimately hurting consumers, which is a version of antitrust law that American regulators have since mostly abandoned, though activists like the Open Markets Institute are pushing for it to be re-embraced. It’s an approach that Europe recently adopted, as evidenced by its antitrust crackdown on Google last year; European regulators fined Google $5 billion for making its search engine the default and including the Google Play store and the Chrome browser for free in Android operating systems, which are used by 80 percent of smartphones.

The government originally hoped to break Microsoft up into two companies (one that made operating systems software and another that operated the rest of their products), which is similar to what tech company critics are calling for today for companies like Facebook and Google.

But the only concessions the government ultimately got from Microsoft after a years-long battle were a promise not to conspire to keep competitors from being excluded from new computers and a commitment to make Windows interoperable with non-Microsoft software. Still, that was significant, according to law professor Tim Wu and U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, who wrote in a New York Times op-ed that those concessions opened the door for the rise of new technology companies:

[W]hat we do know is that the remedy pushed Microsoft to act with more caution, creating an essential opening for a new generation of firms. It might seem like a cruel irony that the immediate beneficiaries of the Microsoft antitrust case—namely, Google, Facebook and Amazon—have now become behemoths themselves. But this is how the innovation cycle works: It creates room for saplings to grow into giants, but then prevents the new giants from squashing the next generation of saplings. (Microsoft was itself, in the early 1980s, the beneficiary of another antitrust case, against IBM, the computing colossus of its time.)

The then-new technology companies that thrived due to the government throttling Microsoft’s growth are now dangerously large and powerful, according to antitrust critics. But regulators, in the U.S. at least, have raised very few concerns about monopolies. Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple, combined, have bought over 400 companies and start-ups over the last decade, with none of the acquisitions facing pushback from regulators, as the Wall Street Journal points out.

“Today’s titans tower over their kingdoms, secure behind their walls of user data and benefiting from extreme network effects that make serious competition from startups nearly impossible,” wrote Antonio Garcia-Martinez in Wired recently about the lessons learned from the Microsoft legacy. “U.S. antitrust laws, written in the industrial age, don’t capture many of the new realities and potential dangers of these vast data empires. Maybe they should.”

Over the course of my week blocking Microsoft, my devices try to send over 15,000 data packets to the company’s servers, or just as much data as they tried to send to Facebook when I was blocking it—not much compared to Google (over 100,000) or Amazon (nearly 300,000). Most of the interaction with Microsoft is a steady stream of about 1,000 packets each night that mystifies me and Dhruv until we realize it’s when I open up my library book app to read before going to sleep, an app whose data must be hosted by Azure. I could read what I had already downloaded—the Wheel of Time books, because I’m a sucker for fantasy series destined for TV—but because of the attempted interaction with Microsoft in the background while I am doing so, I abandon the book for the week.

I’ll reiterate here that this low level of interaction with Microsoft might be unique to me, or at least unusual. Lots of readers probably have a Windows machine at work, or watch their favorite shows on a Surface tablet, or use Outlook for their corporate email, and wouldn’t find the Microsoft block as seemingly easy as I did. And even I, who thought I only relied on Microsoft for LinkedIn, Skype, and apparently, my car’s radio, realized through this exercise that I probably interacted with it in the real world, in coffee shops or paying my fare on the bus, in ways I couldn’t capture this week.

The big difference between Microsoft and the others in the Big Five is that it’s been forced into the shadows while the others are freely operating their respective empires right in our faces all the time.

So if the conclusion is that I can live (sort of) without Microsoft today because of the government’s antitrust crackdown in the 90s, the question is what the government should do now about the behemoths I am finding I can’t live without.

Next up: Apple

This series was supported by a grant to Dhruv Mehrotra from the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism.

Source: Kotaku.com

I Cut Facebook Out of My Life. Surprisingly, I Missed It

Goodbye Big FiveReporter Kashmir Hill spent six weeks blocking Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple from getting her money, data, and attention, using a custom-built VPN. Here’s what happened.  

Week 2: Facebook

After Facebook’s hell-year of scandal, and its unabating erosion of our privacy—a topic I’ve been covering for over 10 years—I never thought I’d miss the social network. But here I am, staring at my screen, feeling strangely alone.

In the second stage of my epic quest to thwart the world’s most powerful tech giants from getting my data, my money, and my attention, I’m taking on Big Blue. No Facebook. No Instagram. No WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Onavo, nor Oculus Rift. For one week, I’m cutting myself off from everything Facebook-related—not simply deleting apps from my phone, but using a custom tool that completely stops all my devices from communicating with Mark Zuckerberg’s enormous, needy baby.

Originally, I just planned to block myself from using Facebook the same way I’d blocked myself from using Amazon, by routing all my internet traffic through a virtual private network (VPN) controlled by the technologist Dhruv Mehrotra, who is prohibiting my devices from communicating with IP addresses controlled by Facebook. But I decide this experiment is an opportunity to do something additional, something more drastic.

Facebook’s misdeeds with our data have been news cycle fodder for at least a decade, but the past year has been particularly bad. The only explanation for why most of us are still members is Stockholm Syndrome. Like many people, I feel invested in Facebook: I’ve been building my profile since 2007. I have party and vacation photos galore there and over 1,000 connections, including dear friends, acquaintances, colleagues, loved ones, and quite a few randos whom I added for reasons that I no longer remember. I’ve written that people who aren’t on Facebook “may not actually exist” and are “suspicious.” I use Facebook to log in to other services that I use a ton such as Airbnb, Words with Friends, and Spotify.

I couldn’t quit Facebook, could I? And if I did, would I miss it? Would the world I’ve built there miss me?

Facebook has steamrolled almost the entire planet into joining its platform, so it’s amazing how damn thirsty it seems much of the time. To prepare for the Faceblock week, I sign into Facebook one last time and discover 36 notifications waiting for me.

“Damn! Must be some big things happening,” I think, but when I click on the white bell, I discover 35 notifications about one friend’s comment on a link I had shared earlier in the week. Facebook had been adding a new notification every few hours since the last time I had signed in, in what must have been a desperate attempt to get me to open its app. I’m not alone in getting countless irrelevant notifications on Facebook.

I feel about quitting Facebook the same way I feel about deleting my tweets, something I also don’t do that I probably should: I’m concerned there could be unanticipated downsides. But this is as good a time as any to find out, so I click the “delete” button.

To my great surprise, my account is instantly gone. I thought Facebook would tempt me to stay with profile photos of friends who would be “sad” without me, but my account just winks out of existence immediately with a message that I can have it back if I sign into Facebook within 30 days. (I put a reminder in my Google Calendar to reconsider this decision in 29 days, and hope that Google Calendar is not blocked when the time comes.)

Of course, while I can “delete” my Facebook, that doesn’t delete all my information from its servers, even after 30 days. It still knows what other people share about me, from photos of me and my family, to my contact information if others upload it.

The first thing I do after the big deletion is visit Airbnb. My biggest concern is that I’ll be locked out and lose years of building up a good reputation as a renter, but I soon discover to my vast relief that I can regain access by saying I forgot my password and supplying my email address. I still have my Airbnb account; it is just untethered from Facebook. Spotify too lets me back in, though my profile photo is gone and my name is replaced with an eight-digit string of numbers. I can also get into Words With Friends, my favorite time-wasting app. It looks like all these companies are planning for the eventual obsolescence of Facebook, thank god for me.

The Amazon block took out whole websites and services for me, but that’s not the case with Facebook, because it doesn’t control the building blocks of the internet. That’s not for want of trying: Facebook has attempted to bring “universal internet” to India and other countries with internet.org, but it has faced resistance.

Dhruv built a counter that tells me in real time how many data packets are trying to get a tech giant; it was spinning like crazy when I was blocking Amazon, but advances far more slowly with Facebook. (Over the course of the week, my devices try to communicate with Facebook over 15,000 times compared to nearly 300,000 times for Amazon the week before.)

The vast majority of Facebook’s requests are likely its attempts to track my movements around the web, via Like and Share buttons, Facebook Analytics, Facebook Ads, and Facebook Pixel. Facebook Pixel, if you haven’t heard of it, is a little piece of code that a company can put on its website—say, on a particular sneaker page that you look at while signed into Facebook on your work computer. Once the pixel captures you looking at the sneaker page, the shoe company can retarget you through Facebook, so you later see an ad for the same shoe when you’re scrolling through Instagram on your personal phone. 

In an email, a Facebook spokesperson just “wanted to point out” that “your experience seeing advertising across devices is common and not new to online advertising.” True, but unlike Pixel, not every web tracker is on over 2 million websites.

Cutting Facebook out of my life is easy technically; Dhruv’s IP address block works well. His only challenge is WhatsApp, which has been designed to circumvent blocks in repressive countries, and so rapidly tries to reach different servers when it detects an inability to connect. (Dhruv compares blocking that one to playing whack-a-mole.)

But psychologically, it’s hard: I miss Instagram as the thing I do to waste time on my phone and to keep up with friends. I also miss, to my surprise, Facebook itself.

The first day of the Facebook block is Halloween, which is particularly hard because I can’t post cute photos of my 1-year-old, Ellev, dressed up as Boo from Monsters Inc. (I ordered the costume on Amazon, of course, pre-block.) And I can’t find out what my friends are dressed as unless I individually text or email them, which is weird. The only people who get to see my family as Boo, James P. Sullivan (me), and Mike Wazowski (my husband) are the members of my extended family with whom we trick-or-treat, the strangers we pass IRL, my in-laws due to a photo sent on a group text thread, and a couple of friends to whom I text photos apologizing for the “bespoke sharing.” I have to admit that the enjoyment of a holiday dedicated to dressing up is somewhat degraded when not using Facebook’s apps.

Where we trick-or-treat, kids get candy and parents get wine
Photo: Trevor Timm

The week of the block also includes the runup to Election Day. One morning, as I talk to my husband, Trevor, about filling in our mail-in ballots, I ask how he is going to vote on the proposition to end daylight saving time in California. He says his cousin wrote a convincing post about it on Facebook (we talk in links even IRL!) and I say I’ll check it out before I remember I can’t. Trevor summarizes it for me: The time change sucks for parents who have to force their kids to wake up an hour earlier. This is a point I wouldn’t have thought of and a conversation we might not have had without Facebook, and it helps swing my vote.

I know. It’s crazy, right? Even with all the news about how terrible information is around elections on Facebook, I still want it as a resource! This is a shocking discovery for me. Did I turn off Facebook during the one week it actually matters to me, or do I use Facebook more than I realize?

I try to fill the social media hole in my life by joining Mastodon, an open-source, decentralized Twitter-like social network. (You “toot” instead of “tweet,” a term chosen by someone who either doesn’t know the standard definition or who believes most of what people write online is noxious hot air.) I try a toot or two, but honestly, I find the idea of building yet another online social network exhausting. So after signing in a couple of times, I abandon it. Network effects are real and powerful.

Sarah Jeong summed up the problem well in Vice soon after Mastodon’s October 2016 launch:

You aren’t on Mastodon because your friends aren’t on Mastodon. Your friends aren’t on Mastodon because you’re not on Mastodon. And I wouldn’t be on Mastodon, either, if I hadn’t promised my editor to write an article about it.

This is the hold Facebook has on us: We built our networks there, and we are loathed to leave them or to start again.

With the purchases of Instagram and WhatsApp, Facebook has a stranglehold on social news and photo-sharing. By blocking them, I lose the ability to mass communicate with my social circle; I can’t brag that I won a journalism award on Facebook or post a video of Ellev feeding a giraffe at the zoo on Instagram.

I also lose my ability to receive news from my social circle. Spoiler: When I give in and re-enable my Facebook account weeks later, I see at the top of my Newsfeed that one of my closest friends recently gave birth. I call her to congratulate her and tell her I wouldn’t have found out if I hadn’t re-joined the social network. “I just assume that if I post something on Facebook, everyone will know about it,” she tells me.

If you give up Facebook and all the companies it owns, you’re cut off from participating in your community, whatever your community may be.

“Facebook has too much market power,” Sarah Miller tells me. “It should never have been allowed to acquire Instagram in the first place.”

Miller is the deputy director of the Open Markets Institute, which has spent the last year loudly calling for the tech giants to be heavily regulated if not broken up. Miller is also the spokesperson for Freedom From Facebook, an advocacy group composed of members of other advocacy groups, like an activist turducken, that has done cute stunts like fly a plane over Facebook’s shareholder meeting with the sign, “You broke democracy.”

Miller thinks the Cambridge Analytica scandal and Facebook’s notable missteps around disinformation and genocide, are symptomatic of a company run amok without serious competitors to force it to be a better gatekeeper of people’s information.

Freedom From Facebook has been pushing the Federal Trade Commission to treat Facebook like a monopoly and break it up. On that count, they scored a meeting with an FTC commissioner, Joe Simons, and have filed a complaint with the agency, though it’s unclear how serious the FTC is about investigating Facebook. A top official there who would otherwise be in charge of such an investigation is conflicted out, but the Washington Post reports that the agency is currently considering hitting the company with a “record-setting fine,” that is, if the government shutdown ever ends.

Though Miller doesn’t think a fine is enough, even a historic one; she argues that the FTC should force Facebook to spin off WhatsApp, Instagram, and Messenger into their own companies, because together Facebook’s companies account for “77 percent of mobile social networking traffic in America.”

“If a company doesn’t have competitors, it’s not incentivized to protect consumers,” Miller tells me during a phone call. “It’s more than just privacy violations. We’re trying to tie everything together. Will our democratic institutions stand up to these companies or let themselves be corrupted?”

Facebook, of course, disputes any notion that it’s a monopoly. “We operate in a fiercely competitive market for services which help people connect, discover, communicate and share,” a Facebook spokesperson told me. “For every service offered on Facebook and our family of apps, you can find at least three or four competing services with hundreds of millions, if not billions, of users.”

Late in the week, Instagram notices I haven’t opened the app in a while and sends me an email prompting me to see what my friends are up to. And I realize I don’t really know what people are up to. My friends now largely expect that I’ll see their broadcasts on various social networks, which means they don’t tell me things individually anymore, unless I see them in person.

Or the alternative happens: I assume I know everything that’s going on with someone because I’ve been following their feed. I recently went to visit a college friend who lives across the country. We text each other every weekend with our favorite photos from the week, and I felt like we were in relatively good touch, but once I’d spent a few days with her, I discovered there was ground-shaking stuff happening in her life about which I’d had no clue. It made me realize just how limited many of my digital communication channels are.

It’s the proverbial double-edged sword: I feel both out of touch when not on these channels, but like I’m worse at being in touch because they exist.

Funnily enough, reading a draft of this story convinces one of my editors, who has never had Facebook or Instagram, to join the latter because he realizes he doesn’t have a way to show cool things “to a bunch of people I know at the same time without texting them [when] they’re not really worth texting over.”

So I don’t know if this series will convince anyone to quit these tech giants, but it has convinced at least one person to join them.

Next up: Google.

This series was supported by a grant to Dhruv Mehrotra from the Eyebeam Center for the Future of Journalism.

Source: Kotaku.com