Finding alternatives is not that hard
Want to move on from Google?
‘You have to get rid of Google, that much is clear’, associate professor of IT law Jaap-Henk Hoepman told UKrant three weeks ago.
The Dutch Personal Data Authority (Autoriteit Persoonsgegevens, AP) had just advised educational institutes to ban the American software giant, because its email and cloud services don’t comply with European privacy legislation.
‘The problem is’, Hoepman explained, ‘that our emails, shared documents and calendar appointments now all end up somewhere at Google without us knowing what exactly is happening to them.’ He called on the UG to take the AP’s advice. ‘This is a good opportunity to do it right’, he said. ‘To stand up for the public cause and not go for a Google-like solution again.’
But it doesn’t look like that will happen any time soon. In that same article, UG spokesperson Anja Hulshof said the university would leave the matter up to the Association of Dutch Universities, which wants to appeal to Google’s ‘social responsibility’ to solve the problems.
Privacy might come with an extra cost
That leaves it up to individual users to make a choice: do they continue using the tech company’s services, or do they venture out on their own? And if they don’t want to give Google their data anymore, what other options are there?
There’s no one better equipped at the UG to answer this question than Jeanne Mifsud Bonnici. Since the university made the switch in 2013, the professor of European technology law and human rights has circumvented Google’s services entirely. Her work with the Security, Technology and e-Privacy research group (STeP) is incompatible with the company.
When it comes to email, the UG doesn’t have much to offer in the way of alternatives. Its email system is based on Gmail, and unless the university decides to switch to another provider, you’re stuck with Google.
However, for personal email, there are plenty of external email services you can use. ‘Personally, I use a system that is hosted in Germany and reassures me of the way the data is handled according to the European privacy rules’, Bonnici says.
She’s so keen to protect her privacy that she’d rather not share which service she uses. But it only takes two minutes of searching on the web to find endless lists of email providers with excellent reviews and reasonable costs – between one and four euros a month – that are hosted in Europe and take pride in respecting their users’ privacy and safety. Among them are a few Dutch ones, like StartMail and Soverin.
‘Just because Gmail is one of the most renowned email services, it may seem like the only option. But there are plenty of others’, says Daan Opheikens, a master student of computer science, intelligence systems and visualization. ‘Although privacy might come with an extra cost.’
It’s even easier to find an alternative to the Google Docs package, along with Drive and Calendar: the UG offers one itself, at least to staff members. ‘Unishare allows you to work on documents together and simultaneously, share them, and store them in a safe manner without having to rely on external services’, says Bonnici.
Unishare offers 250 GB of storage on servers hosted by the UG and it has a clear and extensive web interface, easily accessible by a link. You can even create guest accounts – they get 100 GB – so you can share files with external colleagues, too.
A good old paper diary can be a great solution
‘Unishare falls somewhere in between Google Drive and Dropbox, but the data is held in servers hosted by the UG’, explains Bonnici.
For students, it’s a little trickier. Opheikens suggests going the old-fashioned way: ‘Just work on Word documents on your computer and then share them.’ As for Google Calendar, the European email services mentioned above often also offer a planner. ‘Otherwise, a good old paper diary can be a great solution’, he adds.
In addition to Unishare, there is file sharing service SURFfilesender, which is also provided by the UG. It allows you to send up to 500 GB of files – in any format – in a safe, quick and easy way. The uploaded files are stored in the Netherlands and users can opt for extra safety in the form of encryption. Like Unishare, SURFfilesender also offers guest access.
What about online teaching and virtual student collaboration? Those have been pretty important aspects of academic life over the past fifteen months, but problems with Blackboard Collaborate caused a lot of lecturers and students to switch to Google Meet.
‘It was indeed problematic and at times one had to adapt’, admits Bonnici. ‘But since the last system update, around February, Collaborate improved a lot and it works better now, especially in the interaction with students.’
Still, if you’d rather use a different program, there’s always Bluejeans, a virtual meeting room that works straight from the browser. Users don’t even need a UG account to access Bluejeans, although it is available on request.
The newest UG-mandated Google service is Authenticator, its multi-factor authentication app. While it’s the university’s preferred option, other apps are available. ‘There are better and more modern options out there’, says Bonnici.
You can use Duo Mobile, Twilio Authy, LastPass Authenticator, or Microsoft Authenticator, for example. Bonnici does advise that you make sure the access to the app you use is secured. Otherwise, if you lose your phone or someone hacks it, the second level of authentication is at risk.
Employees who don’t have a phone or tablet can request an MFA card from the UG, although they have to get permission first because of the extra costs for the faculty. Students can only request an alternative in case of serious objections.
But what about the services we use outside the constraints of the academic institution? There are still plenty of services powered by Google that we use daily, like its search engine. Google Search has a 92 percent share of the global search engine market and is the world’s most-visited website. And for good reason: it’s clear, simple, attractive and it works well.
We have to explain every time why we don’t use Google
‘It’s indisputably good’, says Bonnici. ‘Google has perfected it over time.’ It does, however, come at the price of our data, which we offer up for the company’s use. Luckily, Bonnici knows ‘a few ways to almost guarantee safe searches’.
Make sure you set up your browser so it doesn’t identify the user and automatically deletes your search history, she advises. You can do that by using a Virtual Private Network (VPN). ‘It doesn’t mean the searches aren’t recorded, but I can limit the layers of identification that link the searches to my computer. And in my case, the UG also provides a VPN when working from home, which is called Global Protect.’
If you’re looking for another search engine altogether, both Bonnici and Opheikens suggest DuckDuckGo, which promotes privacy. Otherwise, if you want to be hundred percent sure you can’t be tracked, there’s Tor, open-source software that enables anonymous communication. ‘It’s used by people who surf on the deep and dark web’, says Opheikens. ‘However, all those levels of safety do make it quite slow.’
Instead of Google Maps, says Bonnici, ‘use OpenStreetMap. That’s a collaborative project to create a free editable map of the world.’ And to replace Google Translate, there’s the German-based website DeepL. That stands for Deep Learning, which is an aspect of artificial intelligence that wants to replicate human learning. It offers twenty-four languages and has been praised by newspapers like TechChurch and Deutsche Welle for providing more accurate and nuanced translations than Google Translate itself.
It’s not that hard to replace Google, it seems. The biggest hurdle, according to Bonnici, ‘is having to explain to colleagues every time why we don’t use Google and then introduce them to alternatives.’ But don’t let that scare you off, she says. ‘Once we tell them our reasons, they’re willing to change services and gladly welcome our suggestions.’