Mozilla caused a kerfuffle on the weekend by deliberately pushing an add-on to a lot of people’s Firefox installations. This add-on, called Looking Glass and accompanied by the ominous text “MYREALITYISJUSTDIFFERENTTHANYOURS”, turned out to be a promotional tie-in with the TV show Mr. Robot. Like a lot of Firefox users tired of Mozilla’s fuckery, I’ve been nosing around for alternative browsers — but the state of the browser ecosystem is shockingly poor. A large number of alternate browsers out there are forked or patched versions of Chromium and Firefox, and the ones that aren’t are painfully underpowered.
Why don’t I just shut up and make do with a truly independent browser, one that’s not based on Chromium or Firefox? Aside from being chronically underpowered and lacking features (just you try watching Netflix using qutebrowser or Midori; go on, I’ll wait), those independent browsers won’t support Chrome or Firefox extensions. I would never browse the Web now without at least an ad-blocker. My minimum suite of add-ons consists of uBlock Origin (ad blocker), HTTPS Everywhere (security), and Privacy Badger (privacy). I would no longer consider browsing the Web without these or equivalent add-ons because the Web has become an ad-infested, unsecure, privacy-invading stew. It’s like acid rain in all those old sci-fi stories where kids have to go to school wearing armor-plated raincoats. We’re all wearing the armor-plated raincoats now, and anyone browsing the Web without one is asking for trouble.
So this is the state of affairs: we have a Web that no-one can browse and no-one can build a browser for. It’s a shot bird, in my opinion, and probably beyond saving. Which hurts to say — I grew up online and spent a lot of very happy days making friends there and discoving the enormous quantity of stuff that was available to me for the first time (obscure music, digitized books, census records). But when was the last time you visited someone’s website? You don’t any more — you visit their Tumblr or their Twitter or their Facebook. When was the last time you downloaded an MP3 and discovered a new band you liked? You don’t — you let Spotify or Pandora make recommendations and stream them to you. The Web has been turned into an app delivery service and your browser has been turned into an app execution platform, all for the sake of companies that are harvesting users as their product. The Web has strangled itself out of all diversity and innovation. I’m not saying there aren’t still great things on the Web or that we should go back to 1997, but things can’t and won’t continue like this indefinitely. Something has to change. Until then, I dunno… browse Gopherspace or read a book. Ned Beauman’s got a new one out called Madness Is Better Than Defeat. Seems apt.
So I’m kind of a computer nerd. I know, you’d never have guessed it what with all my people skills, but I assure you it’s true. Because I’m a nerd I know what a domain name is, but I also know that most Muggles won’t know about this kind of garbage. A domain name, like www.google.com, is the address of a computer somewhere. We have domain names because computers’ real addresses, IP addresses, look like Stephen Hawking threw up onto his keyboard. When you visit a website, your computer looks up the domain name, translates it into an IP address, and then asks the computer at that address to give you the porn you wanted. A top-level domain is the last bit of the URL. Some of these are very common, like .com and .net, while some less common ones are .aero, .ninja, or .xxx. Then there are the country-specific top-level domains that (are supposed to) designate websites related to a country, like .au for Australia or .uk for the UK. These often get co-opted because they look cool, like .tv (Tuvalu), which gets used by TV companies because who the hell has ever heard of Tuvalu. .io is another common one, and that apparently belongs to the British Indian Ocean Territory. Who knew.
There’s no reason why domains like .com and .ninja shouldn’t be around forever. But what happens to those country domains when that country stops existing? What happened to .yu when Yugoslavia broke up? What happened to .zr when Zaire collapsed? There are people who paid good money for dwarfporn.yu and themanwithtwodongs.zr. What happens to those fine, upstanding folk?
It’s time to tell you how the Internet really works. When you first learned about the Internet, you probably got what I call the “Oompa Loompa talk”. They tell you that the Internet is not a computer in some government bunker being tended by a race of simple, Oompa Loompa-like creatures. That was, of course, a lie — that’s exactly what the Internet is. The Internet is owned by America and it is a big computer in a government cave somewhere. And yes, I wouldn’t bet that there aren’t Oompa Loompas guarding it. Actually, I ought to be more specific. The domain name system is owned by America — the computer that translates domain names into IP addresses is actually thirteen computers owned by the US government1. The Internet would still work without these thirteen computers sprinkled across the globe like the components to the Doomsday Machine, but you’d have to enter Google’s IP address instead of the much nicer www.google.com. The Internet, as it is used by its kabillions of users every day, is effectively run by the American government and its finger-puppets.
The agencies that run these servers determine what’s allowed to be a top-level domain and what’s not. They wave their magic wand when they want to create new and exotic top-level domains like .lightning (shut up, it’s real). They’re also the folks who phase out country domains when those countries get overthrown and renamed by their new leader, the great and glorious General Stompenface. Mercifully the process is not as arbitrary as you might think. If the US government had been in charge of determining who is and isn’t a legitimate country, then communist China wouldn’t have been a country until 1979. Our dark overlords decided to defer to a list of countries maintained by the International Standards Organization (ISO)2. When a country gets added or removed from that list, the overlords have to add or remove it from the thirteen domain name servers.
This brings us back to what got me curious like 17 years ago at the start of this post. What happens to those websites when a top-level domain gets removed? First the country gets removed from the ISO list. Then an ISO lackey gets on the red telephone, calls up the overlords, and in a strange language of their own invention composed mainly of squawks and howls, communicates that the list has changed. The overlords resolve to “decommission” the top-level domain and begin their dark business. In the case of Yugoslavian .yu domains, all .yu domain names had their equivalents reserved under the new Serbian .rs domain. .yu owners then had the opportunity to switch over and claim their new domains. When this was done the overlords began to shut off inactive .yu domains, while the active domain owners and their users had the unenviable task of migrating all their email addresses, login credentials, and mailing list registrations to the new domains. I haven’t been able to figure out whether .yu owners had to pay for the new .rs domains, but since the transition happened over two and a half years, most of those .yu domains probably expired on their own anyway.3
Yugoslavia’s transition seems to have been a happy one. By contrast the Soviet Union’s .su domain, which was created a whole fourteen months before the Soviet Union fell on its sword, is still accepting new registrations today despite the overlords grumbling about wanting to switch the thing off.
I guess the moral of this story is “Don’t live in a country that’s about to get taken over, renamed, and economically buggered by the new administration.” But then I think most of us knew that one already. The more interesting thing I found out after reading about all this jazz is that the Internet is basically run by America in a way that is completely over the head of the average user. Yes, it is technically still the decentralized system it was intended to be, but we seem to have hitched our wagon to thirteen very dubious stars.
Specifically the thirteen servers are owned by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), who are run by the US Department of Commerce. The actual management is done by the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which is under contract to the US Department of Commerce, and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), which was formerly under contract to the US Department of Defense. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — America owns the Internet. ↩
Things were great when we first met. You were the wiz of search engines. Do you remember all those others I met before you? Lycos, AltaVista, AllTheWeb, WebCrawler… I thought they were so flash at the time, but then you came along and changed everything. And just when I thought you couldn’t get any better, you treated me to Gmail. It was the less spammy and more sexy than any email I’d ever seen. You were a lingerie model and Hotmail was that strange streak at the bottom of the toilet bowl that no amount of Toilet Duck can shift.
Then… How can I say this? You changed.
I’m going to drop the Google as abusive boy/girlfriend allegory. Although it’s very fitting, I shouldn’t like to strain it too far.
Basically we all knew Google was a company so we shouldn’t be surprised that they went funny. But the change hurt. A company that had previously offered services for the good of their users now started shearing their customers like sheep. I won’t say they fleeced us exactly, because they never exacted any money from us directly, but they started selling us to their advertisers. Someone said, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product”1, and they were right. Our Web searches and our email became goldmines of data. This isn’t so bad just on its own, which is why we were all pretty much okay with ignoring a few ads for the sake of keeping our free services. But when you consider the fact that email, which is a part of every aspect of your life, is living on the servers of strangers whose intentions are becoming more and more dubious, then you start to feel like you’ve been co-opted into some Faustian pact without even realizing it.
What happens to your data in ten years’ time? You may have totally forgotten about it, but is it living twelve lives on different backup servers? If you delete an email, how deleted is it really? What happens if some rogue Google employee starts sticky-beaking around? And what if Google goes out of business? It wouldn’t be the first time a huge company has shut down and their internal data got bought up by others in the form of database sales and recovered hard drives.
What’s worse was when Google began integrating all of its services. You may have only ever signed up for Gmail, but all of a sudden that became linked with your YouTube account when Google bought YouTube, and then you found yourself with Google+ whether you liked it or not. Now separate accounts you’ve had for years are inextricably linked, and you can’t manage them with the same level of freedom that you used to have. You can only operate within the sphere of behavior that Google wants you to.
My boyfriend tells a story about someone whose YouTube handle was gangstakilla999, which became his “From” name when YouTube linked up with Gmail. He couldn’t figure out why suddenly no-one was responding to his job applications. Then there are the numerous stories of trans folks who were unceremoniously outed to their work colleagues. Aside from being a massive affront to those people’s privacy, this antic also jeopardized their livelihoods.
Google is famous for its corporate slogan of “Don’t be evil”. It’s a noble enough goal, but do you really trust a stranger to stick to it? They are a company whose existence depends on making money. That is their top priority — they assuredly do not have your best interests at heart. And even if they’re not strictly evil, that doesn’t mean they’re not shady, incompetent, or deceptive. Many of Google’s maneuvers of late have the ring of nerds with more power than they know how to wield. Just because they write good software doesn’t mean they know how to manage it. The fact that most of Google’s recent projects have gone tits-up says to me that this is a company which has jumped the shark. They’re making mistakes, shutting down services, and trying to corral people into products they don’t want. As the scramble gets more and more desperate, I think they’ll wind up becoming the next Yahoo! — an empty husk of an idea that used to be good, a circus after all the lions have gone. All that’s required to hammer the last nail into the coffin is a better alternative.
So is it actually possible to disengage? I’ll grant you that the better alternative hasn’t quite come along and blown Google out of the water, but there are some decent services that give you what you pay for. Sure they might cost money, but having sampled the free versions and become Google’s bum-boy, are you really going to complain about $5 a month for email?
I’ve been slowly dissociating myself from Google for the past six months. It’s necessarily a slow process, especially when Google owns gigabytes of your correspondence, but things were going along at a nice pace. When I tried to shut down one of my Gmail addresses, I was taken aback to realize that by closing my Gmail account I had inadvertently closed all my Google services, including Voice, YouTube, Feedburner, and Analytics. So fuck it, if Google doesn’t want me to manage my accounts individually, then I’m not going to manage my accounts at all. Instead of signing back up and trying to claw those things back, I’m going solo.
Your first priority as a Google expat will probably be email. This is a tricky one because it’s so central to our lives and if it’s not quite right then it just feels like Hotmail in 1998. The whole Snowden farrago has had a lot of benefits over the past year because it’s prompted a demand for Internet security and privacy. I’ve had people recommend a number of services like Hushmail, which seem legitimately good for users who just want to pay and get email.
For those who want to take their lives into their own hands, hosting your own email is always an option. It’s difficult to set up, but it’s not that hard to maintain. There has been a huge amount of buzz lately on the Interblag about Mailpile, which is a webmail tool for people who have their own email servers. I was disappointed to find out that it looks sexy as hell but the alpha is far to raw to be usable. RainLoop, on the other hand, may not be the most fully-featured webmail in the world but it’s got everything that Mailpile doesn’t, and has the right kind of UI thrown in for good measure. I swear to god, if I see one more mail client that stacks the inbox pane above the message pane, I’m gonna cut a bitch. That may have worked in the late 90s, but computer screens these days have horizontal real estate, not vertical. Put the panes side-by-side, for fuck’s sake. RainLoop and Mailpile get this, while a lot of other open-source webmail clients are stuck in 2002.
Second on the list is your Web browser. Let’s face it, Chrome is top of the line here. It’s the fastest, the sexiest, and the UI really is that much cleaner and easier to use than other browsers. At the same time, though, it’s Google’s other great foothold in your life. Chrome captures whatever you type into the omnibar and it connects to your Google account. You can disable a lot of these “features”, but Lord knows what else Google might be doing on your computer.
Until recently there wasn’t much competition with Chrome. I’ve been a Firefox kiddie since way back when, but when Chrome came into maturity I switched and didn’t look back. When the day came that I did try and switch back to my old warhorse, I found out that Firefox now resembled a washed-up 1920s starlet who now spends her days cooking under a tanning bed and smoking two packs a day, unfiltered. It was slow, it was clunky, and God help me I missed my Chrome.
I was fishing around for decent alternatives (pro tip: don’t bother with Opera) when Mozilla did an amazing thing: it came out with Firefox 29. It was like the ‘20s starlet jumped out from behind her aging grandmother and yelled, “Surprise! I’m still sexy!” In one release they turned that Titanic away from the iceberg. Sure, they made the UI a lot more like Chrome, but then that’s what people wanted. I don’t care if they nicked the design, they made their old product better and faster. Now Firefox is a more than capable replacement for Chrome, and if you have any qualms about Chrome at all then I urge you to give the new Firefox a chance.
The Search Engine
This is the really tough one. This is the reason we fell in love with Google in the first place and, I think, it will be their last stronghold. There are some alternatives out there, such as DuckDuckGo and Ixquick, but I’ve never found them to be quite as good as Google search is. I hate to say it, but this is the one Google service I’m sticking with.
But that doesn’t mean you have to bend over and take whatever rusty cattle-prod Google feels like rogering you with today. Your computer is yours, and you should have every bit of control over what information you give out and receive. Install an ad-blocker like AdBlock Plus. Bam, now you don’t have to see (or even load) Google’s pernicious advertising. Install a tracker blocker like Ghostery or DoNotTrackMe and bam, now you’re cutting back on what data Google can collect about your browsing habits. Sure, they still have your search queries and probably your IP address, but whores will have their trinkets. Let them satisfy themselves with those breadcrumbs and choke on the knowledge that you’re fighting back against them. The message is clear: the Internet is yours and you don’t have to stand for their shenanigans.
I don’t propose to sit here and list alternatives for every Google service, but by and large they are out there. I’ve traded Analytics for Piwik. I traded Feedburner for nothing, because who the hell cares. YouTube remains an interesting one, though. All my videos are currently down because I’m overseas and don’t have access to my video archives. I’ll re-upload them to a new service when I get home. I’ve heard good things about Dailymotion and Vimeo, but don’t really know anything about them. Does anyone have any recommendations?
Google, we had fun. We really did. But after freeing myself from your tentacle-like embrace, I feel like a new man. My life is my own again. Suddenly I don’t have to care if you’re evil or not. You can do what you like, because you’re going the way of Yahoo! and WebCrawler and all those other exes, the people I laugh about over drinks, or whose gaze I avoid when I see them walking down the street. They’re tubby, wrinkled, and sad now. They haven’t aged well — and neither will you.
PS, I deleted your drunk texts without reading them. We are not a thing any more. Don’t make it weird.