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How to replace each Google service with a more privacy-friendly alternative

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Google accused of bypassing EU’s privacy laws with a secret workaround
Browser maker Brave says Google is leaking personal data to thousands of advertisers to serve targeted ads.

Over the past two years, I’ve been switching between a succession of iPhones and a series of Android devices, using each for an extended amount of time. Spending months with each mobile platform has been a tremendously useful exercise, helping me understand the strengths and weaknesses of the two dominant smartphone options.

But every time I pick up one of those Android devices, a nagging question pops up in the back of my mind. It’s the same one I hear from friends, family members, and readers every time the topic turns to smartphone platforms: “Aren’t you worried about your privacy when you run Google’s software?”

It’s a legitimate question, and there’s no easy answer.

Google, like Facebook, has a business model that’s built on surveillance. The company’s stated mission of “organizing the world’s information” also includes capturing as much as possible of your information. That information is the base layer of some undeniably useful services, which in turn fuel the advertising that makes up the overwhelming majority of Google’s revenue.

In the first six months of 2019, Google took in just over $75 billion in revenue. More than 84% of that revenue, about $63.3 million, came directly from the advertising platform made possible by data collected from a few billion people, including you and me.

To be fair, Google provides ample privacy controls, including options to delete saved data. They also count on most people being too busy, distracted, or unconcerned to actually use those controls. And even if you meticulously delete your activity history. there’s not much you can do about the profile that Google and its subsidiary DoubleClick (and the advertising ecosystem that’s grown up around them) create based on those activities in real time.

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Going through Google’s default privacy controls is an exhausting task.

We won’t even talk about the antitrust investigations in the United States, where Google is reportedly “in serious trouble,” and another antitrust probe in the European Union, which has already fined Google multiple times for anticompetitive behavior.

Unlike the other giant of online advertising, Facebook, the option to delete your Google account isn’t very practical. It’s hard to imagine a world without Google’s outsized influence, but it is possible to rebuild your personal online environment around an alternate set of services and experiences.

There are plenty of options from smaller third parties, but for the most part the replacements for the Google services you know come from Apple and Microsoft. Those two tech giants have the requisite scale, but their business models don’t rely disproportionately on data collection and advertising. When your revenue comes mostly from high-margin hardware (in Apple’s case) and business-focused productivity services (in Microsoft’s case), it’s easier to place greater value on personal privacy, and there’s less incentive to design products and services that explicitly turn data into revenue.

So how do you reduce the role of Google in your tech life? I took a look at my own experience to see where you’ll find the most interesting alternatives. Note that some of these options require paid subscriptions, in contrast to Google’s ad- and data-supported services.

Say adios to Android

There are two and only two mobile device platforms that matter: Android and iOS. As a result, ditching Google means learning to love Apple hardware and software. Because of the way Google licenses Android, it’s almost impossible to find a device that isn’t loaded with Google services. And although you can tweak and tune privacy settings and replace default apps, you can’t easily get rid of the Google Play services and store.

Switching to an iPhone isn’t exactly painful (except perhaps for the pricetag). You get world class hardware, and you also avoid one of Android’s worst flaws: unpredictable updates.

Apple devices get fully supported updates for years, and you are not at the mercy of a carrier to get the latest version. That support lasts a long time, too. The iPhone 6S, for example, which debuted more than four years ago, runs the brand-new iOS 13 and will be supported for another year. You can’t say that about any Android phones released in 2015.

In fact, even new devices often have to wait, sometimes forever, for upgrades. I have three Android phones on my desk right now, from Motorola, Samsung, and Google. All three devices were released in 2018, but each one is running a different Android version (8, 9, and 10). I have no idea if or when those two phones running out-of-date Android versions will get the latest features.

And I have to say I trust Apple’s biometric support more than I trust the same features on Android devices. A pair of snafus involving biometric technology this week, on the latest premium devices from Samsung and Google, make me even more comfortable with switching platforms.

Choose an alternate default web browser

If your objective is to cut ties with Google, you’ll need to choose a different web browser than Google Chrome, naturally. The logical alternatives are Mozilla Firefox and Opera; on MacOS and iOS, you can also choose Safari.

The dark horse in this field is Microsoft’s new cross-platform Edge browser, based on the open-source Chromium engine. (I do not recommend the current Edge browser, available only in Windows 10, which is deprecated and will probably be replaced within a year.)

The most relevant feature is tracking protection, which offers this simple but easy-to-understand interface in the new Edge Settings pane on the desktop.

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This Edge setting blocks trackers without requiring third-party software.

How effective is it? Click that Blocked Trackers link to see a running count. On this browser, the number-one source of trackers is Google, which accounts for more than 20% of the blocks on my production PC. 

Although it’s technically in a beta release, the new Edge browser has been extremely stable on Windows 10 for me; it also runs on MacOS and has versions for iOS and Android. It allows you to install extensions directly from the Chrome Web Store, and pages you visit look like they’re running in Chrome.

Pick a privacy-focused search engine

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The Bing brand is an easy punchline for anyone trying to get some cheap tech-oriented laughs, but the underlying data is no joke. In its just-concluded 2019 fiscal year, Microsoft brought in more than $7.6 billion in revenue from search advertising. That’s a fraction (less than 10%) of what Google makes, but it’s still a very big business on its own; that revenue makes it the fifth biggest division at Microsoft, one of the only companies big enough to compete with Google on this playing field.

But you don’t have to insert yourself into Bing’s advertising ecosystem, either. The privacy-focused DuckDuckGo (“the search engine that doesn’t track you”) returns results using Microsoft’s data along with a few hundred other primary sources,

For desktop use, you can also get the DuckDuckGo Privacy Essentials extension for Chrome (which works in the Chromium-based Microsoft Edge as well).

Replace Google Voice

I’ve always been reluctant to use Google Voice for any serious business-related purpose, because it seemed like yet another free service that Google would eventually kill off. One plausible theory I’ve heard is that Google Voice is so widely used by Google execs that discontinuing it is not an option.

Google Voice has the twin benefits of being device-independent and supporting SMS messages. That means you can use a virtual number other than your regular mobile phone number for security-related tasks, like two-factor authentication. That makes SIM-swapping scams dramatically less effective.

Google Voice also runs on multiple devices, which is handy for someone who switches devices regularly. Not having to reconfigure 2FA when you switch to a new device is liberating.

I can’t find a free alternative to Google Voice that I can comfortably recommend, but the venerable Line2 service, at $10 per month (or $99 a year, billed annually) fills the bill. YouMail, a call-blocking and voicemail service, includes a second line with SMS support as a standard feature on its $10.99 per month YouMail Professional products. I’ve used it for several years and recommend it.

Use something other than Gmail as your default email client

I’m old enough to remember when Gmail was a closed beta and you had to have an invitation to get your own account. In retrospect, we should have gotten a clue that something was amiss when the Gmail beta launched, officially, on April Fool’s Day, 2004. (Not a joke. DuckDuckGo it.)

Back in 2017, Google stopped its controversial practice of scanning the content of free Gmail accounts for the purpose of targeting ads, and the company says any processing it does of message content (to generate reply suggestions, for example) is done by machines. And, of course, paid GSuite business accounts have always been disconnected from Google’s ad infrastructure.

The main reason I don’t use Gmail, though, has nothing to do with privacy. It’s just that I really really don’t like the browser-based interface on the desktop, where I do most of my serious email work. Alas, that’s how Google wants its customers to use Gmail on PCs, and Gmail developers don’t seem to care that their service doesn’t play well with other clients.

For business accounts, I use Office 365, and most of my personal accounts are on Outlook.com. If your employer uses Gmail, you’re not free to switch, but for personal mail it’s easy to set up a new default address, forward messages from Gmail, and hardly skip a beat.

For paid business email, there are third-party alternatives if you’d rather avoid working with Microsoft directly. I recommend Intermedia, which offers hosted Exchange and Office 365 with a much less intimidating interface. Many hosting providers offer email options to go with your custom domain; for example, you can get Office 365 subscriptions from GoDaddy, with or without a hosting package. It pays to check with your current hosting provider.

There’s certainly no reason to delete your Gmail account, but switching to a new default email service doesn’t have to be painful. Back in 2013, I made the case against Gmail and wrote detailed instructions for switching from Gmail to Outlook.com. The basic principles haven’t changed in all that time.

Get off of Google’s cloud

Some of Google’s stickiest services are its cloud-based storage and collaboration tools: GSuite (Docs, Sheets, Slides), Google Drive, and Google Photos.

Office 365, which includes a terabyte or more of OneDrive storage with every subscription, is the logical alternative to GSuite and Google Drive. Earlier this year, I did a comprehensive comparison of the two services, “Office 365 vs G Suite: Which productivity suite is best for your business?” Read that for a quick refresher on what makes Office 365 different from GSuite.

You can also choose from a wealth of independent cloud storage providers, including well-known services like Dropbox and Box and others that are less well known but technically superior, like Intermedia’s SecuriSync, which is available bundled with email and Office or as a standalone product.

Google Photos is a harder service to replace. For the basic task of backing up and organizing your digital photos, both Apple (iCloud) and Microsoft (OneDrive) offer options to upload photos from the default camera roll on your mobile device to their respective services. OneDrive is the clear choice if you also want those photos to be accessible on a Windows 10 PC.

But no one quite does the AI-powered magic that Google does with Photos. Just be aware that all that magic also feeds Google’s insatiable appetite for data.

Consider Apple’s Maps app

In its early days, Apple’s Maps product was clearly inferior to Google Maps. That’s no longer true, and Maps now plays the same counterweight-to-Google role on iPhone that Bing plays to Google Search. Location tracking is one of the key privacy concerns of our time, so it’s worth at least trying to make the switch.

For those who decide Apple Maps is not good enough, though, you have no credible alternatives to Google.

How do you solve a problem like YouTube?

If you’re a YouTube fan, there’s virtually no way to avoid having your activities tracked by Google, with the inevitable algorithmic recommendations not far behind.

And there’s nothing quite like YouTube on the planet. You can avoid some tracking by using your browser’s private/incognito mode, but that’s at best a partial fix.

Do you see any options I missed? Use the contact form to send me your thoughts via email, or share other alternatives in the comments section below.

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Facebook rolls out new tools for Group admins, including automated moderation aids – TechCrunch

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Facebook today introduced a new set of tools aimed at helping Facebook Group administrators get a better handle on their online communities and, potentially, help keep conversations from going off the rails. Among the more interesting new tools is a machine learning-powered feature that alerts admins to potentially unhealthy conversations taking place in their group. Another lets the admin slow down the pace of a heated conversation, by limiting how often group members can post.

Facebook Groups are today are significant reason why people continue to use the social network. Today, there are “tens of millions” of groups, that are managed by over 70 million active admins and moderators worldwide, Facebook says.

The company for years has been working to roll out better tools for these group owners, who often get overwhelmed by the administrative responsibilities that come with running an online community at scale. As a result, many admins give up the job and leave groups to run somewhat unmanaged — thus allowing them to turn into breeding grounds for misinformation, spam and abuse.

Facebook last fall tried to address this problem by rolling out new group policies to crack down on groups without an active admin, among other things. Of course, the company’s preference would be to keep groups running and growing by making them easier to operate.

That’s where today’s new set of features come in.

A new dashboard called Admin Home will centralize admin tools, settings and features in one place, as well as present “pro tips” that suggest other helpful tools tailored to the group’s needs.

Image Credits: Facebook

Another new Admin Assist feature will allow admins to automatically moderate comments in their groups by setting up criteria that can restrict comments and posts more proactively, instead of forcing admins to go back after the fact and delete them, which can be problematic — especially after a discussion has been underway and members are invested in the conversation.

For example, admins can now restrict people from posting if they haven’t had a Facebook account for very long or if they had recently violated the group’s rules. Admins can also automatically decline posts that contain specific promotional content (perhaps MLM links! Hooray!) and then share feedback with the author of the post automatically about why those posts aren’t allowed.

Admins can also take advantage of suggested preset criteria from Facebook to help with limiting spam and managing conflict.

Image Credits: Facebook

One notable update is a new moderation alert type dubbed “conflict alerts.” This feature, currently in testing, will notify admins when a potentially contentious or unhealthy conversation is taking place in the group, Facebook says. This would allow an admin to quickly take an action — like turning off comments, limiting who could comment, removing a post, or however else they would want to approach the situation.

Conflict alerts are powered by machine learning, Facebook explains. Its machine learning model looks at multiple signals, including reply time and comment volume to determine if engagement between users has or might lead to negative interactions, the company says.

This is sort of like an automated expansion on the Keyword Alerts feature many admins already use to look for certain topics that lead to contentious conversations.

Image Credits: Facebook

A related feature, also new, would allow admins to also limit how often specific members could comment, or how often comments could be added to posts admins select.

When enabled, members can leave 1 comment every 5 minutes. The idea here is that forcing users to pause and consider their words amid a heated debate could lead to more civilized conversations. We’ve seen this concept enacted on other social networks, as well — such as with Twitter’s nudges to read articles before retweeting, or those that flag potentially harmful replies, giving you a chance to re-edit your post.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook, however, has largely embraced engagement on its platform, even when it’s not leading to positive interactions or experiences. Though small, this particular feature is an admission that building a healthy online community means sometimes people shouldn’t be able to immediately react and comment with whatever thought first popped into their head.

Additionally, Facebook is testing tools that allow admins to temporarily limit activity from certain group members.

If used, admins will be able to determine how many posts (between 1 and 9 posts) per day a given member may share, and for how long that limit should be in effect for (every 12 hours, 24 hours, 3 days, 7 days, 14 days, or 28 days). Admins will also be able to determine how many comments (between 1 and 30 comments, in 5 comment increments) per hour a given member may share, and for how long that limit should be in effect (also every 12 hours, 24 hours, 3 days, 7 days, 14 days, or 28 days).

Along these same lines of building healthier communities, a new member summary feature will give admins an overview of each member’s activity on their group, allowing them to see how many times they’ve posted and commented, have had posts removed, or have been muted.

Image Credits: Facebook

Facebook doesn’t say how admins are to use this new tool, but one could imagine admins taking advantage of the detailed summary to do the occasional cleanup of their member base by removing bad actors who continually disrupt discussions. They could also use it to locate and elevate regulator contributors without violations to moderator roles, perhaps.

Admins will also be able to tag their group rules in comment sections, disallow certain post types (e.g. Polls or Events), and submit an appeal to Facebook to re-review decisions related to group violations, if in error.

Image Credits: Facebook

Of particular interest, though a bit buried amid the slew of other news, is the return of Chats, which was previously announced.

Facebook had abruptly removed Chat functionality back in 2019, possibly due to spam, some had speculated. (Facebook said it was product infrastructure.) As before, Chats can have up to 250 people, including active members and those who opted into notifications from the chats. Once this limit is reached, other members will not be able to engage with that specific chat room until existing active participants either leave the chat or opt out of notifications.

Now, Facebook group members can start, find and engage in Chats with others within Facebook Groups instead of using Messenger. Admins and moderators can also have their own chats.

Notably, this change follows on the heels of growth from messaging-based social networks, like IRL, a new unicorn (due to its $1.17B valuation), as well as the growth seen by other messaging apps, like Telegram, Signal and other alternative social networks.

Image Credits: Facebook

Along with this large set of new features, Facebook also made changes to some existing features, based on feedback from admins.

It’s now testing pinned comments and introduced a new “admin announcement” post type that notifies group members of the important news (if notifications are being received for that group).

Plus, admins will be able to share feedback when they decline group members.

Image Credits: Facebook

The changes are rolling out across Facebook Groups globally in the coming weeks.

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Spotify launches its live audio app and Clubhouse rival, Spotify Greenroom – TechCrunch

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In March, Spotify announced it was acquiring the company behind the sports-focused audio app Locker Room to help speed its entry into the live audio market. Today, the company is making good on that deal with the launch of Spotify Greenroom, a new mobile app that allows Spotify users worldwide to join or host live audio rooms, and optionally turn those conversations into podcasts. It’s also announcing a Creator Fund which will help to fuel the new app with more content in the future.

The Spotify Greenroom app itself is based on Locker Room’s existing code. In fact, Spotify tells us, current Locker Room users will see their app update to become the rebranded and redesigned Greenroom experience, starting today.

Where Locker Room had used a white-and-reddish orange color scheme, the new Greenroom app looks very much like an offshoot from Spotify, having adopted the same color palette, font and iconography.

To join the new app, Spotify users will sign in with their current Spotify account information. They’ll then be walked through an onboarding experience designed to connect them with their interests.

Image Credits: Spotify

For the time being, the process of finding audio programs to listen to relies primarily on users joining groups inside the app. That’s much like how Locker Room had operated, where its users would find and follow favorite sports teams. However, Greenroom’s groups are more general interest now, as it’s no longer only tied to sports.

In time, Spotify tells us the plan is for Greenroom to leverage Spotify’s personalization technology to better connect users to content they would want to hear. For example, it could send out notifications to users if a podcaster you already followed on Spotify went live on Spotify Greenroom. Or it could leverage its understanding of what sort of podcasts and music you listen to in order to make targeted recommendations. These are longer-term plans, however.

As for Spotify Greenroom’s feature set, it’s largely on par with other live audio offerings — including those from Clubhouse, Twitter (Spaces) and Facebook (Live Audio Rooms). Speakers in the room appear at the top of the screen as rounded profile icons, while listeners appear below as smaller icons. There are mute options, moderation controls, and the ability to bring listeners on stage during the live audio session. Rooms can host up to 1,000 people, and Spotify expects to scale that number up later on.

Image Credits: Spotify

Listeners can also virtually applaud speakers by giving them “gems” in the app — a feature that came over from Locker Room, too. The number of gems a speaker earned displays next to their profile image during a session. For now, there’s no monetary value associated with the gems, but that seems an obvious next step as Greenroom today offers no form of monetization.

It’s worth noting there are a few key differentiators between Spotify Greenroom and similar live audio apps. For starters, it offers a live text chat feature that the host can turn on or off whenever they choose. Hosts can also request the audio file of their live audio session after it wraps, which they can then edit to turn into a podcast episode.

Perhaps most importantly is that the live audio sessions are being recorded by Spotify itself. The company says this is for moderation purposes. If a user reports something in a Greenroom audio room, Spotify can go back to look into the matter, to determine what sort of actions may need to be taken. This is an area Clubhouse has struggled with, as its users have sometimes encountered toxicity and abuse in the app in real-time, including in troubling areas like racism and misogyny. Recently, Clubhouse said it had to shut down a number of rooms for antisemitism and hate speech, as well.

Spotify says the moderation of Spotify Greenroom will be handled by its existing content moderation team. Of course, how quickly Spotify will be able react to boot users or shut down live audio rooms that are in violation of its Code of Conduct remains to be seen.

While the app launching today is focused on user-generated live audio content, Spotify has larger plans for Greenroom. Later this summer, the company plans to make announcements around programmed content — something it says is a huge priority — alongside the launch of other new features. This will include programming related to music, culture, and entertainment, in addition the to sports content Locker Room was known for.

Image Credits: Spotify

The company also says it will be marketing Spotify Greenroom to artists through its Spotify for Artists channels, in hopes of seeding the app with more music-focused content. And it confirmed that monetization options for creators will come further down the road, too, but isn’t talking about what those may look like in specific detail for the moment.

In addition, Spotify is today announcing the Spotify Creator Fund, which will help audio creators in the U.S. generate revenue for their work. The company, however, declined to share any details on this front, either– like the size of fund, how much creators would receive, time frame for distributions, selection criteria or other factors. Instead, it’s only offering a sign-up form for those who may be interested in hearing more about this opportunity in the future. That may make it difficult for creators to weigh their options, when there are now so many.

Spotify Greenroom is live today on both iOS and Android across 135 markets around the world. That’s not quite the global footprint of Spotify itself, though, which is available in 178 markets. It’s also only available in the English language for the time being, but plans on expanding as it grows.

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Biden admin will share more info with online platforms on ‘front lines’ of domestic terror fight – TechCrunch

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The Biden administration is outlining new plans to combat domestic terrorism in light of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and social media companies have their own part to play.

The White House released a new national strategy on countering domestic terrorism Tuesday. The plan acknowledges the key role that online platforms play in bringing violent ideas into the mainstream, going as far as calling social media sites the “front lines” of the war on domestic terrorism.

“The widespread availability of domestic terrorist recruitment material online is a national security threat whose front lines are overwhelmingly private–sector online platforms, and we are committed to informing more effectively the escalating efforts by those platforms to secure those front lines,” the White House plan states.

The Biden administration committed to more information sharing with the tech sector to fight the tide of online extremism, part of a push to intervene well before extremists can organize violence. According to a fact sheet on the new domestic terror plan, the U.S. government will prioritize “increased information sharing with the technology sector,” specifically online platforms where extremism is incubated and organized.

“Continuing to enhance the domestic terrorism–related information offered to the private sector, especially the technology sector, will facilitate more robust efforts outside the government to counter terrorists’ abuse of Internet–based communications platforms to recruit others to engage in violence,” the White House plan states.

In remarks timed with the release of the domestic terror strategy, Attorney General Merrick Garland asserted that coordinating with the tech sector is “particularly important” for interrupting extremists who organize and recruit on online platforms and emphasized plans to share enhanced information on potential domestic terror threats.

In spite of the new initiatives, the Biden administration admits that that domestic terrorism recruitment material will inevitably remain available online, particularly on platforms that don’t prioritize its removal — like most social media platforms, prior to January 2021 — and on end-to-end encrypted apps, many of which saw an influx of users when social media companies cracked down on extremism in the U.S. earlier this year.

“Dealing with the supply is therefore necessary but not sufficient: we must address the demand too,” the White House plan states. “Today’s digital age requires an American population that can utilize essential aspects of Internet–based communications platforms while avoiding vulnerability to domestic terrorist recruitment and other harmful content.”

The Biden administration will also address vulnerability to online extremism through digital literacy programs, including “educational materials” and “skills–enhancing online games” designed to inoculate Americans against domestic extremism recruitment efforts, and presumably disinformation and misinformation more broadly.

The plan stops short of naming domestic terror elements like QAnon and the “Stop the Steal” movement specifically, though it acknowledges the range of ways domestic terror can manifest, from small informal groups to organized militias.

A report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in March observed the elevated threat to the U.S. that domestic terrorism poses in 2021, noting that domestic extremists leverage mainstream social media sites to recruit new members, organize in-person events and share materials that can lead to violence.

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