Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and others have come to dominate every aspect of our online lives because they offer almost so much for free. Email, cloud storage, document editing, photo hosting and more can be accessed without paying a cent. Instead you have to pay with something that you may not think is valuable, but can prove irreplaceable once it’s lost; your privacy.
Many users make this trade not only because the consequences aren’t immediately apparent but also because there’s no obvious refuge. Fleeing from Google to Microsoft, or vice versa, offers no benefit, and truly superior choices seem hard to come by. But there are alternatives and, once you’ve learned about them, you may find that they’re even better than the big-name services you’ve grown accustomed to. Here’s where you can flee to when you’ve become fed up with big businesses sticking their nose in your privacy.
The Alternative For Web Search: DuckDuckGo
There’s actually a wealth of potential alternatives to Google Search and Bing, but many of them are small search engines with a niche focus or not very good at what they do. There is just one search engine that sticks out as a particularly solid choice, and that’s DuckDuckGo.
Many people use this search engine for privacy reasons because it does not track user queries. This means you lose personalized results, but it also means you won’t fall into a search bubble that isolates you from results an algorithm has decided you don’t want to see. While you’ll see advertisements based on your search results, your interaction with them is not tracked and they aren’t tailored based on your past searches. You’ll also see fewer ads relative to Google or Bing, so they take up less space on the page.
DuckDuckGo is an attractive, modern website, something not all small search engines can claim. The simple design includes webpage, image and video results, and an extension is available for FireFox, Chrome and Opera that can be used in place of your standard URL bar for search. You simply won’t find another independent search engine that can best the refinement and features of DuckDuckGo.
The Alternative For Webmail: Various
Replacing Gmail or Outlook.com or Yahoo Mail is the most difficult choice most refugees must struggle with. Webmail is extremely convenient and the other services most people know about have the same advantages and problems. If you dig a bit deeper, however, you’ll find there are many options.
The most straightforward solution is a dedicated webmail service such as FastMail. You’ll have to pay a small fee (usually $10 to $100 per year, with price increasing based on storage), but you’ll gain webmail access without advertisements. More expensive plans provide calendar support, too, which means you can ditch Google Calendar and Gmail simultaneously.
You can also obtain email through most website hosting companies; even the cheapest packages usually include some form of service, and many will provide “unlimited” email, which means you can create an unlimited number of email addressed based on your domain. Web storage usually is limited but, as with a dedicated webmail provided, you can pay for more. This is a great option if you have a website (or want one).
Your third option is a “secure” email provider like Hushmail or EnigMail. These services offer encryption as part of their package and many promise at least some degree of protection from government spying. This is usually offered via an implied or implicit agreement that the provider won’t comply with requests from national spy agencies. Secure email is your best option if privacy is your top priority, but don’t get too cozy; encrypted emails must be decrypted by the receiver, poking a rather large hole in the scheme.
What these services have in common is that they are all paid, something that’s difficult to avoid. You generally receive what you pay for, and if you pay nothing, you don’t get much in return. The only option that might fit your needs is Zoho Mail, which is usable for free, albeit with a tight data limit.
The Alternative For Web Browsing: Opera
In my recent round-up of web browser performance I noted that Chrome and Opera provide very similar results. While Google’s browser is slightly quicker, Opera scores a very close second, and both render images and text identically.
The reason for this is simple; underneath the skin they are the same browser. Both use the Blink engine, which was developed by Google with help from Opera and a few other companies. Same engine means same performance, so while the interface looks different the pair provide identical results.
Now, you might think this is cheating since Google is still involved. I’d argue it’s not because while Google helped design the web engine, using Opera doesn’t hook you into Google’s ecosystem (or that of any other large company). If you still can’t stomach the idea of using a Blink powered browser, well, there’s always Firefox.
The Alternative For Cloud Storage: Dropbox (And Similar) Or DSTRUX
Dropbox is an aberration. Founded in 2007, the massively successful cloud storage service remains independent despite the fact it retains over 100 million users. Usually a successful startup would be quickly acquired but rivals like Google, Microsoft and others have instead developed their own competing services.
Stranger still, Dropbox provides free storage with no ads and no strings attached even thought it only makes money through paid storage accounts. You can’t acquire as much free space as you can with Google or Microsoft, but unlike those companies Dropbox has no interest in selling or examining your data and no agenda besides profiting off the sale of cloud storage services.
This isn’t your only option, of course. Others include Box, SugarSync, MediaFire and even iCloud, if you have an Apple device. You can also try self-hosted cloud storage, which is the most secure and private option, but this requires that you have a computer at home that can act as a server and will be available 24/7. But I recommend giving Dropbox a shot first, as it’s the easiest to use and most mature of the storage services available.
Users who are extremely concerned about privacy should take a look at DSTRUX, a new service that’s designed to provide a high level of data security. Unlike other cloud services DSTRUX is set up to only store your data for a limited period of time. Once time has expired the file is removed. You can’t use this service for backup, obviously, but it’s great for sharing files you don’t want prying eyes to see.
The Alternative For Cloud Productivity: Zoho Or Dropbox, Again
Zoho is another strange island that’s never been acquired by a competitor despite its excellent range of services and early entry into the cloud services arena. Founded in 2005, Zoho is on the verge of its 10th birthday, and the company that owns it (Zoho Corporation) has been around for over 18 years.
There’s very little you can’t do with the applications offered by Zoho. There’s Writer for documents, Sheet for spreadsheets, Notebook for notes, Calendar for calendars and Show for presentations. This is in addition to a huge roster of additional “business apps” which cover topics as diverse as accounting, staff management and software de-bugging. While the company offers a variety of paid plans most individuals will find the free plan is adequate for their needs.
Another choice worth mention is (again) Dropbox. No, the company doesn’t offer a document suite, but it does offer plenty of space and automatic storage synchronization through its application, which runs on Windows, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS. If you save documents to your Dropbox folder they’ll automatically be available on other systems where you have the application installed, emulating the benefit of a cloud office suite.
The Limits Of Privacy
The choices offered here can significantly improve your privacy in a number of ways. Unlike Google and Microsoft (which openly admit they will examine and use your data for purposes besides providing the expected service) these alternatives only make money by keeping users happy. Most also provide superior customer service, particularly if you sign up for a paid version. You can expect a quick and effective response to any questions or problems you might encounter.
But don’t be fooled. Migrating away from Google and other cloud giants can protect your data from them, but it doesn’t make you invincible. You still need to be wise about your online security to prevent the possibility of your account being compromise. It’s also unfair to expect protection from any government agencies you think are snooping on you. Google Drive and Microsoft OneDrive are probably examined more closely than Dropbox or Zoho, but there’s not much they can do if they receive a subpoena. Companies abide by the laws of the country they reside on no matter how morally questionable those laws might be. Only companies that operate in countries which don’t comply with requests for data from other nations can provide any form of protection.
Conclusion: Make The Choice
Everything that I’ve written in this article comes from personal experience. I’m a former Google junkie, but I became fed up with the company’s poor privacy policies, slow service updates and virtually non-existence customer service. These choices represent those I’ve made myself. I now user Opera, with DuckDuckGo as my primary search engine. My email is handled through my web host. And all of my files are synced through Dropbox and other independent cloud services.
What services do you use to better protect your privacy, and do you think switching to them has been worthwhile? Let us know in the comments.