6 tech companies that aren’t evil

You can (mostly) survive without Google, Facebook, PayPal and the others. Here are the pros and cons of the alternatives.

I’ll just say this up front. If you’re trying to ditch the prevailing technologies in favor of those that are more secure and less exploitative, you’ll have to accept a level of inconvenience. Convenience is a powerful motivator to keep using Google, Facebook, PayPal, etc. But in recent months I’ve decided to start weening myself.

I have four main motivations for moving part of my life toward different products:

  1. Privacy: Privacy is a human right and a vital resource for free societies. We should all support those companies and nonprofits working to preserve the public’s right to privacy.

First I deleted my Facebook app. It was taking up a ton of storage on my phone, and I found accessing the site through my browser inhibited impulsive Facebook checking. Then little by little I began trying out new services — social media, email, web browser — working my way toward a total transition. I’m not all the way there yet. This has involved time, effort and inconvenience. But overall I feel better about how I use internet services (and how they use me).

So I’m writing this post to give you an overview of the services I’ve been using, along with the pros and cons as I see them. Kindly note: I’m not a tech whiz, and I’m not an expert on these products. I’ve researched this stuff pretty thoroughly, but if you see anything wrong, disagree with a statement or think I’ve missed an opportunity to highlight another service, please let me know in the comments.

Diaspora*

A bare-bones, ad-free social media platform with decentralized servers

Diaspora* (the asterisk is part of the brand) is a social network built by the nonprofit Diaspora Foundation. The software it uses is open source, meaning anyone can review it and modify it. More importantly, your information isn’t given to a single entity that can manipulate it and sell it for profit, but rather it’s stored on a network of servers around the world (or you can host it on your own server). You can even use Diaspora* anonymously if you want. More on how it works here.

Pros:

  • There are no ads. It’s less annoying, and no one is harvesting your information for profit.

Cons:

  • None of your friends are there. And for most people, that’s a deal-breaker. It’s more fun hanging out with your best friends than a bunch of strangers.

Conclusion: Because Diaspora* is less popular and the interface is less appealing, I find I’m not as addicted to it. I check it the way I check Twitter: occasionally, when I want to see what’s going on in the world or share something I found interesting. I still have to use Facebook for work and I still want to share life updates with faraway friends, which means I’m not totally reaping the benefits of “leaving Facebook.” But I waste less time throughout the day, and when I do get sucked down a Diaspora* rabbit hole, at least it’s not battling trolls or scrolling through endless brainless memes.

ProtonMail

Secure, private, Swiss-based email developed by CERN scientists

ProtonMail is a browser-based email service with end-to-end encryption developed by Geneva-based Proton Technologies. (Disclosure: I’m currently trying to get a job at ProtonMail. Update: I got the job.) The company markets itself as trying to balance privacy and security with accessibility. So the product is free (with paid upgrades for more storage, etc.) and extremely intuitive. You do not need to enter personal information to create an account.

Pros:

  • Your emails are totally private. Messages are stored in encrypted format, and the company doesn’t have access to account passwords or encryption keys. The company does store unencrypted metadata, such as subject lines and sender/recipient email addresses. But this seems to be for practical reasons, like allowing users to search their inbox for emails. The only way anyone could compel the company to turn over your (unreadable, encrypted) emails and metadata (say, for national security reasons) would be with an order from the Cantonal Court of Geneva or the Swiss Federal Supreme Court. More on privacy and security here.

Cons:

  • There’s one huge drawback to ProtonMail right now: The search function does not include text from the body of emails. So unlike Gmail, which uses Google’s powerful search engine to find needles in your haystack of correspondence, ProtonMail is incompatible with how most of us use email. Of course, there’s a good reason for that: The body of your email is encrypted on the server. (The company said in December it has “a solution coming soon.”)

Conclusion: I love the philosophy of this company. They’re super-smart people building universally accessible technology to preserve basic rights. Even if their product may not be right for you right now, you should support what they’re doing by creating an account and using it when you can.

DuckDuckGo

A search engine that doesn’t collect or share your personal information

You’ve almost certainly heard of DuckDuckGo. It’s the favored alternative to Google’s search engine. Believing in the superiority of Google to turn out relevant search results, I resisted using DuckDuckGo for a long time. Yes, sometimes it’s useful to have a browser that remembers your previous searches, knows where you are in spacetime and tells you how many results there are for a given search (3,700,000 results in 0.59 seconds!). But mostly, you just want your question answered or that one webpage to pop up in the top few results.

Pros:

  • It has a lot of the features that make Google so useful, including those information snippets that appear without making you click. For example, if you search “123 Pleasant Street Morgantown,” you get Yelp reviews for my favorite West Virginia bar. If you search “Latterly,” you get the first sentence of the Wikipedia page for the magazine I edit.

Cons:

  • The news search function isn’t that great. Results are limited and unsorted.

Conclusion: So you’ve got two largely equivalent search engines. One monitors your online behavior and the other doesn’t. I don’t see many reasons to default to Google’s search engine except when DuckDuckGo doesn’t offer the specific feature you need for a given search.

Brave

A web browser that blocks ads and trackers

There are so many web browsers to choose from, and many are very good, with sterling reviews from privacy geeks. My experience with browsers consists of 1990s Netscape and Internet Explorer, Safari, Firefox, Chrome and now Brave. So I’m not a big expert, and I’m not picky. People on Reddit seem to favor Firefox because it offers more privacy configurations, but they also agree that Brave’s default settings are pretty good.

Pros:

  • The default setting blocks ads. So except in rare cases, you’ll never see an ad. (Some sites, like The Atlantic, ask you to buy a subscription or turn off your ad blocker before letting you see the content.)

Cons:

  • Blocking ads hurts publishers that depend on ad revenue to pay their writers. Brave is talking about implementing an “attention token” system in which publishers could be compensated for lost ad revenue while earning money from ads Brave displays instead. But as Ars Technica pointed out, it’s kind of a shitty business model. “Generally it’s rather frowned upon to stick your own ads in front of someone else’s.”

Conclusion: I’m not totally sold on Brave yet. The ad-blocker is really nice, and the interface is clean and easy. Obnoxious ads do go away, and many sites do load faster. But without Google Translate, I’ve found it hard to stop using Chrome for certain things.

Update 11/8/17: Today I started using Opera, and so far I like it much better. Brave had been randomly freezing up (for instance, I would click a tab and nothing happened). So I wanted to give this a try. Pages seem to load faster. It includes a seamless Google-powered page translation. It blocks ads and trackers. And it includes a free, built-in VPN powered by Surfeasy. Still trying this out, but I think I can do away with Chrome now.

Coinbase

Sends money to people cheaply and pseudonymously via cryptocurrency

Coinbase is a great alternative to PayPal, Venmo (owned by PayPal), Google Wallet and other cash transfer services (like banks) that aren’t always private, may charge high fees and benefit disagreeable characters, like Trump’s friend Peter Thiel. PayPal has been known to block business and charity accounts for questionable reasons. (PayPal and Coinbase have announced a partnership, however, that would allow PayPal users to send Bitcoin.)

Pros:

  • Coinbase lets you send money in three cryptocurrencies: Bitcoin, Ethereum and Litecoin. It also lets you store fiat currency (dollars, pounds, euros) in your account if you prefer to avoid volatility in cryptocurrency markets. (Lately BTC volatility has tended upward, doubling its value over the last two months.)

Cons:

  • If you use Coinbase to invest in cryptocurrency, there’s always a chance you’ll lose all your money. It’s an unregulated and extremely risky market. You’ve been warned.

Conclusion: I’ve been using Coinbase for several months now to invest in cryptocurrency and send money to colleagues. No real problems so far. I much prefer using this to other services when I can help it. (For international transfers, TransferWise is another great option.)

Signal

A chat app with end-to-end encryption that isn’t a business

Signal is probably the most private and secure free chat app on the market. While many messaging apps now offer end-to-end encryption, including WhatsApp, Line, Threema, etc., Signal goes a few steps further. My favorite part about this company is that it’s not really a company (nor is it a nonprofit, actually) in the sense that they don’t have a business model. They just want to build a cool product.

Pros:

  • Signal is totally private and extremely secure. The parent organization, Open Whisper Systems (which built the encryption protocol WhatsApp uses), stores almost no metadata about you, including your contacts. And because they make money only from grants and donations (unlike WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook), they don’t have any incentive to collect any of your information for advertisers. The software is open source.

Con:

  • Like Diaspora*, Signal has a user problem. When I first installed the app, I discovered that only 18 of my contacts were using Signal. Thirteen of them were journalists. If you want to talk to people on Signal, you’ll have to get them to download it.

Conclusion: I still use WhatsApp and Skype (which may not be very secure) more than I use Signal, just because that’s where all my friends and contacts are. But I’ll continue to use Signal where possible to encourage more people to jump on board.

So it’s not all that easy to just jump ship to new platforms. And especially if you’re a Google user, you’ll likely be tethered to G Suite for the near future. But it’s fun to try out new products. You really have nothing to lose.

I’d love to hear what you think about this review and learn some new suggestions I haven’t considered. Post ’em below. And if you enjoyed this column, please consider supporting my work by becoming a member.

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