Evil for gain or convenience

0 · Saturday 26 October 2013 · Opinions

Definitions of evil vary, as does the analysis of its root motives and causes. However elements that are commonly associated with evil involve unbalanced behavior involving expediency, selfishness, ignorance, or neglect.

I believe in a free internet – free as in free speech, not free beer. I’m unswayed by the blandishments of corporates like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Oracle and Google. I don’t want to be locked into anyone’s ecosystem, and I strongly believe in open standards and protocols to ensure equality of access to information and services whichever device and environment you choose to use.

I still have a computer running Windows, but I’ve otherwise held Microsoft at arms length, opting for open source productivity tools and avoiding SkyDrive and the Exchange/Outlook eco system. I have great admiration for Apple’s design credentials, but I’d only own an iPhone if I could jailbreak it (I did briefly consider a Macbook Pro when replacing my laptop).

And Google? Google’s been harder to avoid.


Google’s innovation and pricing have made its products and services difficult to turn down. Along with the majority of internet users, I came to rely on Google for internet essentials. Initially I took heart from the open source foundation of much of Google’s arsenal – that, and their corporate mantra “Don’t be evil”.

But over time I came to view my use of Google’s functionality as a Faustian bargain. I was uncomfortable that search phrases, email messages and online documents were being parsed to better target advertising. The news that Google was striking deals with repressive governments to limit access to information was unpalatable. Two further discoveries sharpened my thinking.

  1. In common with Facebook and many other large corporations, Google has structured itself to pay the minimum tax possible in any jurisdiction. It moves its money between subsidiary companies to take advantage of local loopholes and avoid paying its share of tax in the country where the money is earned. This reduces taxation revenue and indirectly affects all of us.
  2. Google has always lobbied strongly in the political arena for the things it wants, and that’s not unreasonable. But Google went a step too far for me when it joined ALEC, a right wing pressure group that promotes tax cuts for the rich, discriminatory voter registration and similarly self-serving laws in American state legislatures.


According to Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt, evil is entirely relative and will be defined as required by the company’s co-founder, Sergey Brin.

Evil is what Sergey says is evil.

· Google’s Eric Schmidt

So I no longer find Google’s corporate mantra reassuring. “Don’t be evil” is no more credible than the marketing slogan of any other corporate. When I use Google I feel I’m condoning the exploitation of users, cynical deals with dictatorships, tax avoidance and lobbying against democracy. Google’s products and services may be convenient, but neither personal convenience nor corporate gain can justify evil.

Ending the relationship

I decided over a year ago to end my dependence on Google. I wanted to get to the point where I had no reason to log in to Google again. I’m not there yet, but the end is in sight.

Dealt to

I stopped using Google Search and moved to Start Page: I could as easily have opted for Duck Duck Go. These search engines store no information about me or my searches, and use strong encryption so no-one else can eavesdrop. Start Page has the advantage of not being an American company and therefore not directly subject to NSA surveillance.

I was happily married to Google Calendar for years. None of the alternatives I investigated offered the features and flexibility I was used to, although 30 Boxes deserves an honorable mention. Then I discovered Lightning, the Mozilla calendar application. Lightning integrates directly into Thunderbird, my email client of choice. I was able to import my existing Google calendars, and use a WebDAV server to make my calendars accessible everywhere. Lightning has also replaced Google Tasks.

The only messages in my Google Mail inbox come from Google itself: it’s not an email address I use. I had a brief initial dalliance with Google+ but, as I do with with Facebook, only used it to link to content posted on my own websites. I have nothing invested in Gmail or Google+ and no reason to log in.

I got enthusiastic about Google Docs and Google Drive when they first appeared, but that enthusiasm has been tempered by the knowledge that Google parses all my documents and files. I no longer use either. Where collaborative editing is required there’s no shortage of other options. Online file storage alternatives are ten a penny too, although I prefer to store and share files on my own server.

Whether or not I’m logged into Google, whether or not I’ve enabled performance reporting, I no longer feel confident my online activity isn’t being harvested by Google Chrome. I minimise my exposure to Chrome at work by carrying out most compatibility testing through a service like BrowserStack. Outside work I stick with Firefox and the open source Chromium browser, based on Chrome’s code base.


The elephant in the room is my Android phone. I’ve been tempted to give it away, but I really do need a smartphone for business. Keen as I am to free myself from dependence on Google, I see little point in swapping one walled garden for another, which rules out Apple and Microsoft.

Thankfully there are some exciting alternatives on the way. Higher-specced Firefox OS phones from major manufacturers are on their way. And Jolla will deliver the first Sailfish OS phone in 2014. By this time next year I’ll have traded in my Android phone for an alternative that doesn’t require a Google log in.

Will I miss some of Android’s features? I don’t think so. I’m not a big user of mobile apps: if my phone provides email, maps, a music player, RSS reader and laptop tethering I’ll be content.

Decree absolute

Once my Android phone has been traded in, the divorce will be final. I’ll no longer have any need to log in to Google, and I can close my Google account.