Google bad, privacy good, Right?

Privacy lock
Privacy – it’s all that matters?

In the android community, and more so in the more privacy focused parts of it, there is often talk of “de-googling” or going full-on FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) only route. These people often refuse to use software written by or supported by bigger companies, and instead prefer to only use software or apps written by small time developers, and has code licensed under the GPL (GNU Public License, a common copyleft license used in many open source projects), with an intense focus on privacy.

I recently got into a discussion/argument with a few more privacy minded users who found my use of services like Google Analytics, Google AdSense, and even plain old JavaScript appalling, calling me immoral over trying to make a small amount of cash from what I love doing. Sure, these services may profit off what some may call your private data. But really, what is private data when you’re on the internet? And is it really that bad to be collecting it, within reason, if it serves you, the user, and the websites themselves, well?

What privacy can you expect on the internet, anyway?

While browsing the internet, quite a few sites (including this one!) will deploy things like Google Analytics, Google AdSense, Ezoic, or similar services for the purpose of analytics, monetization, or likewise. Quite often these services are called creepy for following you around the internet and learning what you do. And, if a person was doing that, you’d probably call the cops.

But, don’t these services offer usefulness for what they do? For instance, on my site I use Google Analytics to analyze what posts or pages get the most hits, from where, on what device. I was once told this was wrong, and I should have no reason to see this. However, as a content creator, would you not want to know what content is popular? And if all my traffic is coming from a place near my server, is there any reason to continue paying for a CDN (Content Delivery Network) service?

There’s still Cloudflare, which retains certain anonymized user data for an indefinite amount of time. Then there’s my web server, which stores IP address, page visited, and user agent for up to two days. Then there’s your ISP and/or VPN. Then there’s the malware you got from that cat video you just had to watch.

I will not tell you privacy is impossible. However, the more privacy you want or get, expect less of the web to be available to you. The fact is, no matter what, on some level you are being tracked; all that varies is how much information the tracker is gathering.

Are these privacy invasions all bad?

Services like Google Analytics/AdSense are no doubt privacy invasive. But do they not serve a purpose? And if they serve a purpose you find useful, can you honestly say they are all bad? I know I can’t, not honestly.

Let’s say you’re shopping around for new shoes. Do a couple searches, not finding anything. Then you go watch another cat video and lo and behold, there’s an ad for a shoe sale for the exact ones you want!

Advertising is also the only thing keeping that cat video sharing site alive, so you just helped them by clicking on and viewing that ad anyway.

Next, let’s say you’re following a blog and you and other users really like the recent posts on cats. The website owner uses some form of analytics and sees “hey, look, the cat posts are getting the most views! I’ll make more like that.”. Now you get your fill of cat content, instead of the other not so popular dog content.

I’m not saying all private data usage is okay, but when it’s used properly and gives you what you find useful, it’s not all bad.

Privacy from the perspective of a website owner

Now lets pretend I go okay, they are right. I shouldn’t run advertising or do traffic analysis. Then I ditch both.

But then, there’s still Cloudflare, which retains certain anonymized user data for an indefinite amount of time. Then there’s my web server, which stores IP address, page visited, and user agent for up to two days. So better eliminate those too, right?

But now, I have no CDN, no WAF (Web Application Firewall), no security on premises, no advertising revenue, and no traffic analytics. Hey, don’t worry, you’ve achieved privacy. Well, if you don’t count your ISP and/or VPN provider (and no, Tor is not better). That means I need a more powerful and expensive server that I have no steady revenue source for – I am a one woman team with a not so great paying job, and with bills to pay, not to count the time and effort I put into all of the things I develop.

It was suggested to me to put a big ol’ PayPal button smack at the top, and ditch google and even JavaScript. It works for a lot of other FOSS projects, right? Not for me! I’ve only gotten $13 from PayPal in the two years I’ve been circulating the link and participating in the FOSS development community.

I may not be broke, nor am I paying $600 a month to Google Cloud for my server, but even still that’s just pathetic. Let’s face it, most people are unwilling/unable to give money out of the good of their heart to the developers or content creators they love, especially in these pandemic times.

What’s my take on privacy?

My take is this: try to opt out of data collection (Google has an easy way to do this – via AdChoices and the Privacy Checkup in your Google account) where possible, and try to use privacy minded software when possible, but don’t purposefully hinder your or the content creators usage of the beast we call the internet all for a little more privacy.

For example, let’s say you want a note taking app. You have two options: one that’s FOSS, and one that’s not and uses Crashlytics to analyze app crashes, and has ads unless you buy Pro. The second has cool feature, like dark mode, sync, autofill, and more. The first has a Gingerbread-era design and all that’s there to compensate the developer is a PayPal link in a hidden menu. The second compensates the developer via ads or the Pro subscription, and quite frankly is the better choice.

But let’s say the FOSS app does have sync, dark mode, and autofill, and has a subscription to support the developer (or lacks the last one). Then there’s pretty good reason to use the FOSS note app.

Another handy tool is ad blockers: the weapon of users, and the bane of website owners. You are free to use one, and I sometimes do, but please remember to disable it to support the websites and apps you love, so long as they don’t run ads that have literal malware or do constant redirects: this may be the website owner’s sole source of revenue. Providing free content is great and all, but at some point you have to cover costs.

In the end, It’s up to you

I won’t tell you to use only FOSS projects and block JavaScript entirely, nor will I say not to. Just consider the cost vs benefit to both you and the people providing that awesome site or app before you do.

At the end of the day, I’m all for user choice so long as it does not harm other users or the developer.

Privacy is a mixed bag. On the one hand, other big companies may see that metric ton of cat videos you watch. On the other, they provide useful services in most cases and are a regretfully necessary thing.

What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

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