WhatsApp’s recent update of its T&Cs is the final straw: time to start cleaning up this digital shit show! Here’s why and how.
Most people are vaguely aware that big tech collects their data. If you are reading this, you are quite likely one of those people. You might feel that this is inevitable and there is nothing you can do to stop it. Or that WhatsApp, Facebook and Google have become such a big part of your life that you probably feel that quitting is not an option, even if you despise those companies. Or that since powerful AI is set to enslave us in future, we better do what it wants now.
I’ve thought about this long and hard and my conclusions are: 1/ yes, we can do something about it, 2/ we should do something about it, 3/ there are data-friendly alternatives are available, and, 4/ the consequences of this data shit show are bad, making step two even more important. Personally I feel like I can, and should, quit WhatsApp, Facebook and Google. And blog about it. I’m not expecting everyone else to do the same, but if you read what I’ve got to say, think about it, my work here will be done.
For a start, not all big tech is the same. For example, Apple are not saints, but when it comes to data collection and careful use of our data, they do better than Facebook or Google. Worth remembering that Apple’s core business is making hardware and designing software, whereas Facebook and Google are primarily advertising companies; data, your data and my data, is the core of their business. Microsoft also produce things, like Apple, but they can’t resist collecting troves of our data too, it seems. I’m not going to try and address everything bad in the world in this post, or quit all big tech myself, so I focus on Facebook and Google and the way they use data. One step at a time.
The issue begins with Google and Facebook tracking just about everything you do online. And keeping that information. Google collects it from Chrome, Google searches, maps, Gmail, Youtube and links that to other info about you on the web. You are probably vaguely aware of this, but would be quite shocked to know just how much it knows about you. In fact, it probably knows you better than you know yourself. Think I’m joking? Sign in to Google and go to the account home page, click on ‘data and personalisation’ and have a scroll.
It turns out that Google had a record of exactly where I have been, and at what time, for each day between 2012 and 2015 (I’ve deleted this and my Google account now). It knew exactly which bars I went to, what mode of transport I took to get there, exactly what time I arrived, where I went on holiday, which hotel I stayed in, what time my flight was and how long it took. For example, see below for an itemised account of my trip to Wales on the 21st of August 2015: it knows where I picked up my car, where I stopped for coffee, what route I took and when I arrived at my destination.
My phone had literally tracked my footsteps. It was interesting to remember what I did each day, but creepy at the same time. Really creepy actually. I’m not sure why it stopped tracking me, but it happened when I switched from Android to iPhone. I’ve heard from several good sources that iPhones are much less invasive when it comes to collecting and using data than Android phones. The good news is that if you don’t want to fully disconnect and become a Buddhist Monk and stop using all Google services like me is that you can control, somewhat, the amount of data that Google collects about you even if you use Android (read this article to find out how).
It’s not just maps, or Google search, or Chrome; Gmail collects tons of information about you, as this article explains. That said, I haven’t been using Gmail, Chrome or Google Search for some time, yet Google still knew a lot about me. It seems that just having an account, not actually using it, is enough for them to collect tons about you. It knew I’m a father, my age, that I like football and want to buy and electric car. Since I don’t use Google much, it must have obtained it from other sources, such as my internet service provider or my Facebook profile or my credit card spending habits. It is able to do so, as long as your account is open, which is one of the reasons I’m closing my Google account.
Facebook is at it too. And you might argue that they are even naughtier than Google when it comes to data collection and handling. They don’t do a good job at protecting our data or preventing it from being used in unethical ways, it seems. And it also seems that they aren’t prepared to change. There are other Facebook misdemeanours too: repeatedly allowing leaders and politicians to use its platform to deceive the public, facilitating the harassment of journalists and political opponents or allowing fake news to distort political outcomes.
Some of the services that Facebook and Google offer are great. I like them, I have used them extensively. But the incentive structure in this data ecosystem doesn’t lead to good outcomes. The more time we spend on these platforms, the more data we generate, the more more they know about us, meaning that they can show us more and ‘better’ ads.
Quick side note: your phone listens to you. I’m not sure if its Google, or our phones, or how, but I was recently in the countryside and somebody made a comment about ants on a chair. Less than a minute later I picked up my phone and read a football article and there it was, first advert at the bottom of the article, a link to one of those shitty click-bait articles about how to deal with ant infestations in a house. I never talk about ants. Never. Except for that one time and there you go: ant article.
The more time we spend on their platforms, the more profit they make. In fact, they collect data and make profit even when we are not on their platforms – they can do it simply by us having an app installed or an active account. But they prefer it if we are on the platforms, and so alerts are craftily designed and timed to get us back on there as soon as possible. They also use subtle techniques like red dots on phone apps to attract our attention (to be fair that could be Apple) or the scroll function with a slot-machine like feel to entice us to have another spin and stay a little longer. This doesn’t feel healthy. And it is really problematic for young, easy influenced and emotionally immature people, who get sucked in and spend too much time on these platforms.
The chart below shows how the suicide rate among teenage girls has increased significantly since social media took off (starting around 2008). I’m not saying that social media is responsible for the emotional instability of teenage girls, or that this is proof of a causal relationship. But I do suspect there is a link, and the pitfalls of social media are something we can all be aware of, even adults. There are many problems: online bullying and abuse, seeking validation through social media likes, confusing the online world with reality, focusing on broadcasting messages to large groups rather than building closer relationships with friends, etc. These problems can’t all be blamed on social media companies or big tech, but social media and big tech are lightning rods.
Thought all of that was bad? The biggest problem in my opinion is something else: how Facebook and Google personalise the content that they show people – those ‘better’ ads. In some cases because they know so much about us, they will show us things that we are more likely to want to buy, which is a good thing. But there is more going on than this, which is leading the world and general population down a bad path. The impressive and sophisticated artificial intelligence doesn’t just advertise things to us, they show us content that they think we will like and that is more likely to generate engagement from us and time on their platform. This is a really big deal, and there are two major problems with this.
First, everybody gets shown different things, which ends up reinforcing biases and polarising opinion. What Facebook shows me would be completely different to what Facebook shows someone else (and that would be true even if we had exactly the same friends). What I get shown when I do a Google search is different to what someone else does when they do the same thing. If I type in climate change is into the search bar, the next words suggested by Google’s predictive text might be the biggest threat to humanity. Someone else might type that in and the suggested next words might be is a hoax. We no longer consume the same set of information, or the same set of facts. None of this is regulated, like it is on traditional platforms such as television and media.
The second problem is the proliferation of dodgy information: fake, misleading or intentionally divisive. Type flat earth into Google and the next thing you know you’ve watched hours on the topic on Youtube, you’re ignoring thousands of years of scientific progress and playing in the NBA and telling the world that the Earth is flat. One study showed that fake news stories spread six times faster than legitimate stories, highlighting how fake, or sensationalist, news wins. This content isn’t created by Facebook or Google – it is often maliciously created and placed – but it gets promoted by their clever AI which has identified it as more likely to generate engagement and increased time on platform. Never mind that it is fake, divisive and doing a disservice to humanity. A balanced opinion, verified news and things in consumers’ interest are not the objective. This is a huge problem. Democracies are more divided than ever (see charts below). There are many reasons for this, and I’m not saying that this is all the fault of social media or big tech, but I do think they play a part and they have been too easily exploited by those with bad intentions.
The final axe I have to grind is with WhatsApp’s new T&Cs. In February this year, the service, which is owned by Facebook, announced that it would be updating its T&Cs and that people who did not accept them would be kicked off the platform. Such updates are fairly normal, but this ultimatum prompted anger from many people and a closer inspection of the update, which allows Facebook to link data from WhatsApp to Facebook. Many people downloaded apps like Signal, a WhatsApp-like messaging service created by one of the founders of WhatsApp (which he couldn’t resist selling to Facebook for $19 billion back in the day). When Facebook purchased WhatsApp they had agreed not to link data from WhatsApp to Facebook, but this alleged promise seems to have been broken.
Worried by the bad press and rush by many into other messaging services, Facebook delayed the date by which people needed to accept the new T&Cs. Facebook say that they would not be able to identify users from their WhatsApp data, but apparently this isn’t entirely true since they will still be able to do this via metadata (i.e. data about data). Ultimately, Facebook haven’t kicked anybody off WhatsApp yet, even those people like me who haven’t accepted the new T&Cs, even though I get frequent messages telling me to do so, which I keep rejecting.
It is unclear how long this standoff will last, but even if I never have to accept the new T&Cs, I’m fed up enough with Facebook that I’ve decided I can do without it. I’m not happy with Facebook’s data collection more generally and am even more suspicious about their intentions for this T&Cs update now that they are now creating their own currency (which was initially called the Libra, linked to a basket of other currencies, but has since been renamed Diem and is just linked to the value of US dollars). Enough is enough.
Luckily, I’ve got friends and family who have downloaded and are using Signal and other WhatsApp alternatives and encouraged me to do the same. I’ve also spoken to work about this and they understand my decision, even though that means I’m going to have to leave the work WhatsApp chat. The video below does a decent job at explaining some of the controversy and alternatives (p.s. I haven’t found a great alternative to Google-owned Youtube yet, although this article recommends Hooktube or Vimeo).
So, what can we do? You can be extreme like me and quit, which is a mission. It’s taken me ages to get round to doing this since you need to tell certain people you are leaving, make sure you have certain bits of information saved. This is true when leaving Gmail, Facebook or WhatsApp. The pain with changing email is that you’ve probably used it tens or even hundreds of times to create website logins, which is a pain in the ass to sort out and redo.
If you don’t want to go to those lengths, there are ways to reduce the amount of information that Facebook and Google collect about you without quitting those services altogether. See for example this explanation. I’m not sure there is any way to do this on WhatsApp other than rejecting the new T&Cs. Another way to reduce data collection is to delete apps from your phone but continue using the service on your PC. Only a partial measure but that might lighten the digital shit show a little.
There is no real alternative to Facebook (Instagram is owned by Facebook too), but I have decided I can do without it: yes, I will miss information about my friends. But equally, since I don’t regularly use Facebook, I miss tons of information about my friends anyway. The tried and tested method of speaking to them and asking them how they are is an option that I use from time to time. When I quit Facebook I will be saying goodbye to 500 blog followers, a big loss for a small blog like this. But so be it, I think that is a price worth paying.
More data friendly alternative to WhatsApp, such as Signal, exist, as explained in this blog post. There are also alternatives to Gmail. I think Hotmail and Yahoo harvest your data too, but Protonmail is a free, non-intrusive option. You can also use a Premium, paid-for Protonmail service like I do. No ads. No shit. For other Google services, I recommend DuckDuckGo for search, Apple Maps for maps and Firefox browser.
Finally, if you’d like to join me in the quitting front, here’s how: 1/ Get yourself organised before you do it and think about who you need to tell and what information you need before it is gone; 2/ Keep the faith and don’t give up once you realise how time consuming step 1 is; 3/ to quit Gmail (after making sure you’ve got all necessary emails and changed your login details on important sites) log in to Google, go to your account page (https://myaccount.google.com), go to ‘data and personalisation’, scroll down to find ‘delete a service or account’ and then do it; 4/ you can follow these steps to delete your Facebook account; 5/ to delete WhatsApp delete the app from your phone (but if you use Google drive or Android phone, your chats may have been backed up and will need deleting via Google or the phone itself – if you followed step 3 that won’t be a problem). Explanation here.
Note: if you are reading this message and received notification of it as a link on Facebook or a message I’ve sent on WhatsApp, yes, I can see the irony. This is my last hurrah on those platforms, but also my way of letting people know that I am leaving. If you would like to keep in touch, please do. For those that don’t have my details drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and we stay in touch. I’m still on Twitter (I know, maybe they do bad things with data, but one step at a time). You can also follow this blog and receive automatic updates by inserting your email address in the bar below.
Last but not least this post (and blog) is a side hustle. I don’t get paid for writing this (not a hustle, really just a side I suppose). But that is not my intention. It’s a small effort to try and understand and take a position on something important. And that’s it. Thank you for reading and if you have found any of this information useful, taking a position yourself, sharing this post, or supporting this blog is very welcome. There are many ways to do that: checking back on the site from time; signing up for email alerts, leaving a comment below; sending this to your friends (even sharing on social media) and telling them how great it is.
Agree? Disagree? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below. And if you want to learn more about these issues, I recommend the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma, checking out the views of Tristan Harris, Roger McNamee and Jaron Lanier or listening to episodes #71 and #152 of the Sam Harris podcast. You could also read the The Age of Surveillance Capitalism by Shoshana Zuboff or read this post one more time.