8 Reasons why you should avoid Google

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“Google it.” Even my technophobe grandma understands what that means, and almost everyone with experience of the internet has used the company’s services in some shape or form.

Once a humble search engine, Google has morphed into one of the biggest companies in the world. “Don’t be evil” used to be part of its corporate code of conduct, but any trace of this old motto was purged in 2018.

From Android to YouTube, it’s tough to avoid its services entirely, although it’s easy to understand why you’d want to. The following guide discuses how and why it’s a good idea to remove Google from your life.

The origins of Google

The first version of Google, designed by computer scientists Larry Page and Sergey Brin, was released on the Stanford University website in 1998. Their original mission was to catalogue and organise the many pages of the internet, and they started from a garage in California. They nearly sold the company in 1997, but competitors like Yahoo! baulked at the $1m asking price. Instead, in 2000, Google developed AdWords, enabling them to heavily monetise the platform, with this funding used to expand across a wide range of services and products over the next decade.

By the mid 2000s, Google Maps had been launched, while purchase of Android was completed in 2005. The release of Google Chrome in 2008 was soon followed by apps like Google+ (2011) and Google Drive (2012). The company pushed on into cloud computing and other ventures, cementing their status as the undisputed king of the internet.

Of course, it hasn’t been smooth sailing: Google has faced a number of accusations regarding everything from monopolisation to disrespecting user privacy. 

Eight Reasons to Avoid Google

This list could have taken up twice the total word count alone, but here’s a rundown of eight of the best reasons to avoid the company. We’re open to further suggestions, so let us know what we’ve missed below!

1. Privacy

One of the most persuasive reasons to avoid Google stems from their blasé attitude to privacy. Each time you use their search function or one of their many services, you give away ever more personal information. We’re all aware that Google stores an enormous amount of data on the average user, from search history to advertising profile – however, you may not know just how sinister their data collection methods are.

For example, not only does your phone constantly ping your location to their servers throughout the day, smart lights inform the company exactly when you’ve chosen to go to bed at night. Additionally, Gmail tracks users’ purchases, and footage from secondhand Nest Cam Indoor home security cameras can still be viewed, even after being reset. If subsequent users can see the footage, Google can too.

In September 2019, Google was fined a record $170m after the Federal Trade Commission investigated how YouTube handled user data for children under the age of 13. FTC chairman Joe Simons released a statement soon after: “YouTube touted its popularity with children to prospective corporate clients, yet when it came to complying with COPPA [the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act], the company refused to acknowledge that portions of its platform were clearly directed to kids. There’s no excuse for YouTube’s violations of the law.”

The only way to avoid your data being harvested is to limit usage of its platforms. 

2. Censorship

As Google controls so much of what we see on the internet, censorship is a key issue for the company. They’re aware of the delicate nature of free speech, so much so that an 85-page presentation entitled ‘The Good Censor’ was commissioned in 2018. Leaked and published online by far-right Breitbart News, the briefing gives an insight into Google’s current stance on the subject. It concludes that large tech companies “are performing a balancing act between two incompatible positions”, facing pressure from governments on one side and users on the other. Censorship requests are also noted to be rising, as shown in the image above.

Google had also reportedly been developing a censored version of their search engine for China, which would also link user queries to a phone number – a direct way of keeping tabs on individuals. The project was eventually shut down before release “after members of the company’s privacy team raised internal complaints that it had been kept secret from them.”

3. Tax avoidance

Most of the UK population will associate Google and Amazon with big companies’ tax avoidance. The story made headlines repeatedly over the last decade, with the UK press and government regularly combining to condemn the practice. It’s hard to blame them considering “Google’s UK unit paid just £6m to the Treasury in 2011 on UK turnover of £395m.” It’s a paltry sum, but has anything changed more recently? Not really:

In January 2019 it was reported that “Google moved €19.9bn ($22.7bn) through a Dutch shell company to Bermuda in 2017, as part of an arrangement that allows it to reduce its foreign tax bill, according to documents filed at the Dutch chamber of commerce.”

Despite the legality of these methods, it leaves a sour taste when considering the detrimental impact unpaid tax money has on the funding of services like the NHS, or education and the arts. Removing Google from your life will only lower their income infinitesimally, but a concerted effort from a significant portion of users could have an effect on their engorged coffers. 

4. Antitrust concerns

Google is massive, and has consequently faced allegations of monopolisation from both sides of the pond. They’ve also paid out on multiple occasions in recent years.

The EU threw the book at Google in 2018, when they found “Google violated competition rules by paying phone makers to exclusively pre-install Google search on their devices and preventing them from selling phones that run other modified, or ‘forked,’ versions of Android.” They hit the company with a $5bn antitrust fine, and Android phones are now slightly more flexible, in compliance with European regulations.

It didn’t take long for them to end up in hot water again. In March 2019, “Europe’s antitrust regulators slapped Google with a $1.7bn fine for unfairly inserting exclusivity clauses into contracts with advertisers, disadvantaging rivals in the online ad business.”

In September that year, 50 US states and territories banded together to commit to another antitrust investigation, due to concerns about Google’s impact on smaller companies. They’re hoping to send a “strong message” to the giant, but it’s hard to hurt them financially when parent company Alphabet is worth over $820bn.

5. Treatment of employees

From the outside, Google is generally seen as a great company to work for, but multiple concerns have been raised by employees in recent years. Two employee activists, Meredith Whittaker and Claire Stapleton, organised a mass demonstration against Google, where 20,000 workers walked out of their offices to protest the handling of sexual harassment claims. A few months later, both Whittaker and Stapleton felt that they’d been made to pay for their role in the walkout. The former explained in an open letter what happened subsequently:

“Just after Google announced that it would disband its AI ethics council, I was informed my role would be changed dramatically. I’m told that to remain at the company I will have to abandon my work on AI ethics and the AI Now Institute, which I cofounded, and which has been doing rigorous and recognized work on these topics. I have worked on issues of AI ethics and bias for years, and am one of the people who helped shape the field looking at these problems. I have also taken risks to push for a more ethical Google, even when this is less profitable or convenient.”

Stapleton was told she was going to be demoted, despite being a high performer in her sector. After failed attempts to escalate to HR and her vice president, Google suggested she go on medical leave, despite having no illness. She eventually had her role reinstated after lawyering up.

It could be a series of coincidental circumstances, but it’s easy to see why they feel penalised for their role in the demonstration. Either way, not a good look for Google.

6. Pushing AMP

I quietly ignored AMP when it first arrived on the scene. “Accelerated Mobile Pages” tended to load quickly on my phone, although it was annoying if I quickly copied a link only to see a weird AMP version on my desktop.

A range of privacy experts penned a letter discussing their problems with the Google project: “AMP keeps users within Google’s domain and diverts traffic away from other websites for the benefit of Google. At a scale of billions of users, this has the effect of further reinforcing Google’s dominance of the Web.”

Considering that Google already controls much of what is seen and heard online, this is a worrying development. 

7. Google’s changeable ethical stance, and AI concerns 

The ethics of AI is a delicate subject, one probably deserving of its own article. Of course, Google is heavily invested in AI, and has released a list of principles and objectives for their applications. They’ve committed to staying away from weapons tech, but admit “we will continue our work with governments and the military in many other areas. These include cybersecurity, training, military recruitment, veterans’ healthcare, and search and rescue.”

While their technology won’t be used to actively kill people, it would be preferable for Google to ensure their AI development is safe and ethical. They launched the Advanced Technology External Advisory Council (ATEAC) in 2019 to work on developing AI responsibly, but it was forced to close just a week later. More than 2,000 Google employees signed a petition criticising the company’s selection of one of the council members, Kay Coles James, who The Guardian reported “has a history of fighting against trans rights and LGBT protections, has advocated for Trump’s proposed border wall, and has taken a vocal stance against abortion rights.”

Arguably not the best person to comment on ethical issues.

8. (A Lack of) Diversity

In a similar vein, Google has rolled back a number of diversity and inclusion initiatives in recent years. ‘Sojourn’, a “comprehensive racial justice program created for employees to learn about implicit bias and how to navigate conversations about race and inequality”, was cut entirely.

NBC News reported on the rollback in 2020; after contacting Google employees, it found that:

“Seven current and former employees from across a range of teams and roles at the company said separately that they all believed the reason behind cutting Sojourn and taking employees off diversity projects to move them elsewhere at Google was to shield the company from backlash from conservatives.”

However, in terms of diversity itself, it’s worth noting that Google has seen incremental positive change in direct workforce representation year on year.

*Irobiko Chimezie Kingsley