The big five – Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google & Microsoft – have got a stranglehold of our digital life. Not just our digital identities, but almost all of our web experiences are reliant or connected to the technologies of these five companies.
Recently, Daniel Oberhaus from Motherboard and then Kashmir Hill from Gizmodo both experimented by completely “quitting” the Big Five, for four and six weeks respectively. Both of their stories are very insightful and definitely recommended reading for anyone. However, quitting the Big Five is exactly the kind of take on privacy that turns many people off from becoming more privacy aware.
I’ve seen this happen time and time again in r/privacy, where people who have just tipped their toes in the world on online privacy and security are getting barraged with comments like “LOL IF YOU’RE NOT USING LINUX YOU’RE SCREWED” and “YOU NEED TO DELETE ALL SOCIAL MEDIA ACCOUNTS”. But if we as a privacy community would dial back our tone just a bit, I think we could do way more good than what we’re doing right now.
First of all, like noted in those two articles, getting rid of Amazon is next to impossible thanks to Amazon Web Services (AWS). Together with Microsoft Azure (and Google Cloud Platform in a smaller scale) they are so dominant cloud providers, that it’s practically pointless to block them. Without access to those platforms, the web experience you’re familiar with doesn’t exist.
That doesn’t mean you couldn’t or shouldn’t delete your Amazon account, or your accounts on Audible, IMDb, Twitch and the rest of the Amazon-owned companies. You can always limit your digital footprint.
In my opinion, the best way to help people to start taking concrete steps towards better online privacy is to start with a concept of first picking the lesser evil: what is the one (or two) companies they think they absolutely can’t live without? Once that’s identified, they can start removing other companies – also beyond the Big Five – out of their online lives. For example, if you’re using Windows 10 and Office 365, there’s no reason for you to have a Google account. Or if you’re deep in the Apple ecosystem, you most likely don’t need a Microsoft account.
Side note: funnily enough an article called “How to Secure Your Identity & Become Anonymous Online in 2019” lists getting rid of a Gmail account as hard as switching from Mac OS or Windows 10 to Linux. This is simply not true. In fact, it’s a laughable illusion to think that the average person would rather want to switch to Linux instead of just switching an email provider.
The only reason you’d need a Google account is if you use an Android phone or want to subscribe to YouTube channels. For both of these use cases I’d suggest creating the Google account with e.g. Protonmail address and populating the account with disinformation.
Whichever the companies are that the individual starts removing from their lives, I’d say 9 times out of 10 the perceived “difficulty” comes from breaking the habit of using those services. As Melissa Michael wrote in this article discussing the Big Five:
“Like habitually flipping the light switch during a power outage, quitting the Big Five would certainly take time to get used to.”
Deleting your Google account is easy. Deleting your Facebook account is easy. It’s like ripping off a band-aid, both in a sense that it stings a bit and in the sense that once you get it off, you don’t feel the need to put it back.
Quitting the Big Five might be a powerful way to take control of your online privacy, but I’d argue it’s not the right way for most of the people. So next time someone asks you for privacy advice, take off the big tinfoil sombrero and put on a tinfoil calotte instead, and mindfully nudge them towards better privacy practices. I’d rather influence 100 people to take some baby steps for their privacy, than just one who’d go to extreme lengths while the rest 99 would be as gullible as they’ve been this far.
If you’re still interested in blocking all five companies from your life, here’s Dhruv Mehtora’s guide on how to build a custom VPN to block all related traffic.