BOB GARFIELD: On March 1st Google enacted a new policy that allows it to pool user information, like personal profiles, contact lists, browsing histories from across all of Google’s many web services. We’re talking about Google Search, YouTube, Blogger, Google Maps, all of it, compiled into what is essentially a comprehensive dossier – on you.
In response, in the past week, two class action lawsuits were filed against the Internet giant. But by then, Tom Henderson, a software researcher in Bloomington, Indiana had already made a highly personal decision. He decided to “file for divorce” from Google. Tom, welcome to On the Media.
TOM HENDERSON: [LAUGHS] Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: First of all, let me say I’m – you know, I’m sorry to hear you’re going through this, and I hope it works out well for everybody in the end.
TOM HENDERSON: It’s tough. I’m kind of glad that Indiana isn’t an alimony state.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Yeah, it would be very difficult for you to support Google in the manner to which it has grown accustomed. [LAUGHS]
You wrote a piece detailing the first seven days of “Life Without Google.” What is the process? What do you have to do, not only to your computers but as a matter of online behavior?
TOM HENDERSON: The first thing you have to do is, is discover what Google services are critical to you. Do you use Google Mail?, do you use Google Voice? Do you use Google Maps? And then you have to find replacements for those. Then you need to – shut Google off. And then you have to pretty much armor yourself up because you forget exactly how much you do on the Internet if you’re a researcher like me.
And you’ll find yourself going, oh, [LAUGHS] look at that, I – went and found Google again and, oh my goodness, there – there could be a Google cookie out of this, let’s go look.
BOB GARFIELD: Let’s talk about cookies because the tracking that Google and other online providers do, it doesn’t happen by magic. It happens because they have embedded little bits of software onto your browser to keep track of where you’ve been and to be able to reach you easily the next time. What was the process of eradicating cookies and making sure that they didn’t find their way onto your browser?
TOM HENDERSON: What you have to do is, is a process of first removing the cookies, then you have to block the cookies and their applications for doing this. I use one called Ghostery, which is working very well. And then finally you have to prevent accidental Google usage, which can happen. And you do that by using a somewhat ancient method of redirecting any requests that your machine might accidentally make to Google.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, as a consequence of all this Google avoidance [LAUGHS], did you find that you had to settle for inferior services, inferior search, inferior email, inferior mapping, inferior directions and so forth to make this “divorce” work?
TOM HENDERSON: All of the applications that I use are good enough. The search engine that I use is called DuckDuckGo. DuckDuckGo, unfortunately, does not roll off the tongue [LAUGHS] as nicely as Google.
BOB GARFIELD: Oh yeah, you – you’re fine. “Just DuckDuckGo it.”
TOM HENDERSON: [LAUGHING] Yeah –
BOB GARFIELD: I don’t know.
TOM HENDERSON: Yeah, I want to say “Quack” but it does come up with the right answer that I was looking for in the first few hits, just like Google did. I don’t have to scroll past the sponsors, although DuckDuckGo [CLEARS THROAT] does have sponsors. And, you know, it’s – you know, very reasonable to use.
BOB GARFIELD: You, of course, understand that surrendering privacy is the cost of admission to use these services for free. Privacy has been commodified and, to varying degrees, we surrender it for all sorts of things, let’s just say air travel safety, for example, because there’s a benefit. Y- you just don’t like the deal. You think you’re putting yourself too much at risk in order to have access to all this Google stuff.
TOM HENDERSON: In a way that’s accurate, but it’s the same reason that I walked into the studio today wearing clothes, as opposed to walking in stark naked. It has to do with my sense of modesty and my sense of privacy, and it seems to me that there shouldn’t be a quid pro quo that serves Google stockholders that also robs me of my privacy.
When I go to DuckDuckGo, I am doing so with the benefit of knowing that nobody’s going to digest what I’m doing and so forth and then reselling it so as to optimize my ad experience or for other analytical data uses. So there is a philosophy behind it, and the philosophy is to regain a bit of my privacy, knowing that I’m sacrificing some way cool [LAUGHS] applications.
BOB GARFIELD: What was the hardest to do without?
TOM HENDERSON: YouTube.
It’s really tough.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, you’re still on LinkedIn, you’re still on Twitter. You’re still on Facebook, Facebook!
TOM HENDERSON: Yes.
BOB GARFIELD: Where your life is very much an open book, plus all sorts of data tracking. Are you less exposed now than you were when you filed for “divorce?”
TOM HENDERSON: Yes, I’m – I’m less exposed. I have more clothes on. I feel a little bit better about my usage of the Internet.
In terms of Facebook, I can confine my conversations to the people who are my friends and not broadcast them to the world rather easily, including search engines like Google. But I’m also not going to talk about, you know, my most intimate details, frankly, on Facebook. And I’m kind of cringing at people who really do that.
I’ve thought really overtly at length about what are my relationships and what am I saying here, and do I have a place where I’m completely uncensored and I can say anything that I want to? And, to be honest, that’s in a closed room with perhaps an open bottle of red wine.
BOB GARFIELD: [LAUGHS] Tom, thank you so much.
TOM HENDERSON: You’re quite welcome. Thanks for having me.
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BOB GARFIELD: Tom Henderson is the principal researcher for ExtremeLabs, Inc in Bloomington, Indiana.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Coming up, archiving digital bits of dubious distinction, and tweeting after you’re dead.