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.
  2. Democracy: Powerful Silicon Valley companies have begun to exert their ideology in the political realm. But their corporate interests don’t always align with the public interest.
  3. Equality: Silicon Valley products like Uber and Upwork create unprecedented power imbalances between employers and workers, limiting workers’ ability to earn fair compensation. (I haven’t come across any viable alternatives to these, unfortunately.)
  4. Personal independence: When vast portions of my life are inextricably blended with products built by just a few companies, I have surrendered some of my agency to them. More options means more control. More options also means supporting more competitive markets, since the government doesn’t seem to care about monopolies anymore.

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.

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

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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.
  • The Diaspora* interface is more like Twitter than Facebook in that you see every post in your “stream” (equivalent to your wall) and not just what the algorithm has chosen for you based on your previous engagement. You create your stream by following users and hashtags. There is also a public feed, which displays all network-wide public posts.
  • I appreciate the community itself, which seems more articulate and positive than those of other networks. Of course you have a lot of Deep Staters and revolutionary anarchists on there. But even they seem friendly. And I’ve come across a lot of great articles and ideas that don’t really surface on Facebook’s hive mind.
  • If you still want to use Facebook and Twitter, most open Diaspora* “pods” (their name for individual servers) allow you to link those accounts and cross-publish simultaneously.

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.
  • The design is super old-school. They don’t have a lot of money for developing new features. A friend who tried out Diaspora* in 2011 told me the interface hasn’t changed much since then.
  • Whereas Facebook bombards you with annoying memes and ads it thinks are relevant to you, in Diaspora* you get hit with anything tagged with a hashtag you follow. So you end up seeing an Instagram effect, where you may see a lot of foreign-language content and spam. (You can choose to ignore users permanently and flag spam.)
  • Diaspora* has a chat feature, but it’s super glitchy. And if you stop using Facebook Messenger, you’re probably going to miss a lot of messages from people who don’t know you stopped checking it.

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.

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

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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.
  • There are a lot of cool features, like Snapchat-style ephemeral communication and the ability to send encrypted messages to non-ProtonMail users.
  • The user interface is built with non-geeks in mind. So there’s not really any learning curve moving over.
  • ProtonMail’s main server is deep enough underground to withstand a nuclear strike, on the off-chance somebody bombs Switzerland.
  • It’s ad-free.

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.”)
  • It’s difficult to make a hard transition from your current email to ProtonMail. Your contacts will continue to use your old email address. Even if you set up mail forwarding and deletion, Google (for example) will still have access to all your incoming email.
  • You can’t lose your password, or you’ll lose all your emails. That’s because your encryption key is based on your password, which ProtonMail doesn’t have (or want) access to. (There is, however, an option to enter a backup email address where you can recover access to your account, though this creates a security weakness.)

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.

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

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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.
  • In many ways, the search results that appear in DuckDuckGo are more reliable than the ones that appear in Google. That’s because DuckDuckGo uses “sources” that it chooses. So while Google relies on algorithms that can create filter bubbles and feedback loops, DuckDuckGo limits that noise by selecting reliable sources of information and displaying the same results for the same searches for everyone. You’re not going to get a ton of results from content mills trying to game the system with backlinks and keyword density.
  • You don’t get served ads based on previous search history. They make their money on search-term-based ads and affiliate programs with Amazon and eBay.
  • Google puts a greater emphasis on the first page of results, narrowing the variety of information you’re conditioned to receive. DuckDuckGo has continuous scroll, encouraging you to view a greater diversity of links.
  • Videos from YouTube and other video sites are embedded in search results, so you can play them without clicking off-site.

Cons:

  • The news search function isn’t that great. Results are limited and unsorted.
  • It doesn’t have all the amazing ancillary search tools like Google’s Books and Scholar searches. Nor does it have Translate. The closest DuckDuckGo offers is what it calls !Bang, which allows you to quickly access the search functions of thousands of specific websites. I don’t find !Bang all that useful because the search functions of many websites aren’t very useful.
  • The image search doesn’t let you filter results for Creative Commons, so if you’re looking for images “labeled for reuse,” you’re going to have to find a different search engine.

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.

A web browser that blocks ads and trackers

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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.)
  • Brave blocks sites from tracking you. So even if you do choose to load ads for certain sites, they still can’t use re-marketing.
  • On sites that are ad-heavy, like Time.com, pages load significantly faster.

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.”
  • It seems to me that not all sites load faster. For example, DuckDuckGo searches in Brave load slower for me than Google searches in Chrome. While Brave markets itself based on the “hours of time” you’ll save each year, I haven’t found it to be significantly faster overall.
  • It only supports a few extensions, not including the one I depend on most of all in my work: Google Translate. (I’m pretty sure the Google-made Translate extension is only available in Chrome.)

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.

Sends money to people cheaply and pseudonymously via cryptocurrency

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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.)
  • You can send funds to the recipient’s digital currency address or, like PayPal, simply to their email address.
  • There’s much more privacy in a cryptocurrency transaction than most other payment services, which are traceable to you by the companies and, in the event of a security breach, by anyone. By definition, Bitcoin transactions are public, with each one logged in the blockchain. But they’re pseudonymous, meaning it’s somewhere between very difficult and almost impossible to associate any transaction with any user. (Though some researchers say the odds of remaining anonymous decrease as more venders accept Bitcoin as payment.)
  • If Coinbase suffers a data breach and someone steals your money, your funds stored in cryptocurrency will be reimbursed and any amount up to $250,000 (for U.S. residents) is FDIC insured.
  • Fees are pretty low.

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.
  • If you’re sending money to someone and you enter their digital currency address (a long string of letters and numbers) incorrectly, another user could receive those funds and basically you would lose your money. Aside from the possible case of email transfers or if you somehow know who you accidentally send the money to, there’s no way to recover your funds.
  • In some cases, it can take up to seven days to transfer money from your bank account to your fiat currency wallet, meaning it’s not always the fastest way to send money to someone. (Coinbase does allow instant transactions through credit or debit cards, but these can have a cap as low as $200 depending on your bank.)

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.)

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

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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.
  • The interface is super easy to use, and I like the design better than WhatsApp.
  • Voice and video calling seemed much clearer on Signal than on WhatsApp. I’m not sure why.

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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