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Doing without

kashmir-hill-untech-gizmodo.pngOver at Gizmodo, Kashmir Hill has conducted a fascinating experiment: cutting, in turn, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple, culminating with a week without all of them. Unlike the many fatuous articles in which privileged folks fatuously boast about disconnecting, Hill is investigating a serious question: how deeply have these companies penetrated into our lives? As we'll see, this question encompasses the entire modern world.

For that reason, it's important. Besides, as Hill writes, it's wrong to answer objections to GAFAM's business practices - or their privacy policies - with, "Well, don't use them, then." It may be to buy from smaller sites and local suppliers, delete Facebook, run Linux, switch to AskJeeves and OpenStreetMap, and dump the iPhone, but doing so requires a substantial rethink of many tasks. As regulators consider curbing GAFAM's power, Hill's experiment shows where to direct our attention.

Online, Amazon is the hardest to avoid. As Lina M. Khan documented last year, Amazon underpins an ever-increasing amount of Internet infrastructure. Netflix, Signal, the WELL, and Gizmodo itself all run on top of Amazon's cloud services, AWS. To ensure she blocked all of them, Hill got a technical expert to set up a VPN that blocked all IP addresses owned by each company and monitored attempted connections. Even that, however, was complicated by the use of content delivery networks, which mask the origin of network traffic.

Barring Facebook also means dumping Instagram and WhatsApp, and, as Hill notes, changing the signin procedure for any website where you've used your Facebook ID. Even if you are a privacy-conscious net.wars reader who would never grant Facebook that pole position, the social media buttons on most websites and ubiquitous trackers also have to go.

For Hill, blocking Apple - which seems easy to us non-Apple users - was "devastating". But this is largely a matter of habit, and habits can be re-educated. The killer was the apps: because iMessage reroutes texts to its own system, some of Hill's correspondents' replies never arrive, and she can't FaceTime her friends. Her conclusion: "It's harder to get out of Apple's ecosystem than Google's." However, once out she found it easy to stay that way - as long as she could resist her friends pulling her back in.

Google proved easier than expected despite her dependence on its services - Maps, calendar, browser. Here the big problem was email. The amount of stored information made it impossible to simply move and delete the account; now we know why Google provides so much "free" storage space. Like Amazon, the bigger issue was all the services Google underpins - trackers, analytics, and, especially, Maps, which Uber, Lyft, and Yelp depend. Hill should be grateful she didn't have a Nest thermostat and doesn't live in Minnesota. The most surprising bit is that so many sites load Google *fonts*. Also, like Facebook, Google has spread logins across the web, and Hill had to find an alternative to Dropbox, which uses Google to verify users.

In our minds, Microsoft is like Apple. Don't like Windows? Get a Mac or use Linux. Ah, but: I have seen the Windows Blue Screen of Death on scheduling systems on both the London Underground and Philadelphia's SEPTA. How many businesses that I interact with depend on Microsoft products? PCs, Office, and Windows servers and point of sale systems are everywhere. A VPN can block LinkedIn, Skype, and (sadly) Github - but it can't block any of those - or the back office systems at your bank. You can sell your Xbox, but even the local film society shows movies using VLC on Windows.

Hill's final episode, in which she eliminates all five simultaneously, posted just last night. As expected, she struggles to find alternative ways to accomplish many tasks she hasn't had to think about before. Ironically, this is easier if you're an Old Net Curmudgeon: as soon as she says large file, can't email, I go, "FTP!" while various web services all turn out to behosted on AWS, and she eventually lands on "command line". It's a definite advantage if you remember how you did stuff *before* the Internet - cash can pay the babysitter (or write a check!), and old laptops can be repurposed to run Linux. Even so, complete avoidance is really only realistic for a US Congressman. The hardest for me personally would be giving up my constant compaion, DuckDuckGo, which is hosted on...AWS.

Several things need to happen to change this - and we *should* change it because otherwise we're letting them pwn us, as in Dave Eggers' The Circle. The first is making the tradeoffs visible, so that we understand who we're really benefiting and harming with our clicks. The second is also regulatory: Lina Khan described in 2017 how to rethink antitrust law to curb Amazon. Facebook, as Marc Rotenberg told CNBC last week, should be required to divest Instagram and WhatsApp. Both Facebook and Google should spin off or discontinue their identity verification and web-wide login systems into separate companies. Third, we should encourage alternatives by using them.

But the last thing is the hardest: we must convince all our friends that it's worth putting up with some inconvenience. As a lifelong non-drinker living in pub-culture Britain, I can only say: good luck with that.

Illustrations: Kashmir Hill and her new technology.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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