Why I dumped Gmail

Reason one: I need my email to work, whether I follow the rules on Google Plus or not

Google has linked so many different products with so many different sets of rules to the same account that I feel like I can’t possibly know when I am breaking some of its terms of use. And I’m not even talking about specifically malicious activity, like using software to scrape information from a Google app or a DDoS attack. I mean something as basic as using a pseudonym on Google Plus, or a teenager revealing that she lied about her age when signing-up for her Gmail account. (These are both things that have brought about the deletion of a Google account, including Gmail.)

For starters, I think it is a dangerous and insensitive policy to require all users to use their real names on the Internet, but putting that aside, I don’t want to risk having all my emails deleted and being unable to contact anyone because of some Murph / Benjamin confusion on Google Plus.

Reason two: it’s actually not okay for Google to read my email

Google never made it a secret that they read everyone’s email. Do you remember when you first started seeing the targeted ads in your Gmail? I bet you called a friend over to look. “Look at this,” you said, “we were just talking about getting sushi tonight, and now there’s an ad for Montréal Sushi in my mailbox! That’s so creepy,” you said.

And then you both laughed. Maybe you made a joke about 1984. Over time, you got comfortable with the fact that Google wasn’t even hiding the fact that they read your mail. Or maybe you never really made the connexion between the ads and the content of your email. Maybe you thought, “I have nothing to hide,” and shrugged it off, or did some mental calculation that the convenience of your Gmail was worth the invasion of privacy.

I guess over time I changed my mind about being okay with it.

And no, this isn’t because I have some huge terrible secret, or because I’m a criminal or anything like that. I just don’t want to send the message that I’m okay with this sort of invasion of privacy anymore. Google’s unspoken challenge to anyone who questions their targeted ads scheme has always been, This the price you pay for a free service like Gmail. If you don’t like it, you can leave.

This is me saying, I don’t like it. I’m leaving.

Reason three: Gmail isn’t even that good anymore

When I signed up for Gmail, there were three things that set it apart:

  1. Tag and archive emails—forget folders!
  2. 10 gigabytes of space—never delete an email again!
  3. Web-based interface—access it from anywhere!

I’ll deal with each of these in turn.

1. Tagging was fun, but it only really works in the Gmail web interface, or in an app specifically designed for use with Gmail. Unfortunately, Gmail just doesn’t play nicely with other email apps, like the one in Mac OS X, or Mail on the iPhone or the BlackBerry. You could make it work through IMAP, having it tell your mail client that each tag was a folder, but it was always a bit screwy, and I never figured out how to put something in two tags through a 3rd-party app or mobile device.

The value of being able to organise emails by simultaneously having them in two categories is outweighed by the fact that I couldn’t access this functionality except through the browser.

2. The amount of space that Gmail provides for emails is not very much these days. I have a website (you may have guessed) and it comes with unlimited disc space for web hosting and emails. 10 gigabytes is just not that big a deal anymore.

3. I can do this with my self-hosted email as well, and I don’t have to suffer through an interface change (“upgrade”) just because Google says so.

So what’s the alternative?

Full disclosure: I haven’t shut down my Google account. I’m forwarding my Gmail to my self-hosted email account, so people who had my old Gmail account can still contact me there for the foreseeable future. I am also still using a number of other Google products, like the Calendar and Google Plus, but my life would not go down in flames quite so quickly if those stopped working as compared to a loss of email access.

Basically, I am moving as many “mission critical” aspects of my life away from Google as I can, to keep my technological eggs in a few more baskets. Email, for example, will be handled by my web host, of which I make backups on a regular basis.

I’m not trying to go cold-turkey on Google. I’m just not going to pretend to be as comfortable as I used to be as a guest on Google’s servers.

Update (2013 Nov 18)

I switched back to the Thunderbird email client a couple weeks ago. It supports tagging and archiving, just like Gmail.

Update (2018)

I switched to Protonmail!

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The Grey Literature

This is the personal blog of Benjamin Gregory Carlisle PhD. Queer; Academic; Queer academic. "I'm the research fairy, here to make your academic problems disappear!"

4 thoughts on “Why I dumped Gmail”

  1. 1) Agreed, legal name thing is a bit weird, but I’ve already given it to them, and even if I’d given them my nickname, I doubt it’d have been an issue.
    2) I think this one depends on how they’re reading my e-mail. I like to imagine that there’s a little closed loop system with no memory or larger output that each of my e-mails filters through and gets its tailored ads from. That, and their creepy algorithm that is trying to understand who I am on the most fundamental level, so as to better optimize my searches/adwords, but I let that one slide because it works so damned well.
    3) I’m a chrome/android user, and I don’t have have your hardware resources on hand, so this one is moot for me. Still, I do like your point about preserving mission critical processes/data. I have McGill and microsoft for backup e-mails, but I’m starting to think that backing up all my old messages might not be a bad idea.

  2. 1) Yeah, I don’t think it will be an issue, but I’m not willing to take the risk that I lose all my email. I just don’t know if there’s some hidden clause in the Picasa terms of use or whatever that will screw me over in the future. And if there is, there’s no way to appeal a decision like that, so I’m preemptively moving my emails to an address I know I’ll always be able to control—one on my own domain.

    Also, the legal name thing isn’t just weird, and it’s not just something that makes me nervous about the longevity of my Google account. (Although it is both those things.) It’s dangerous for some people to use their real names online.

    We live in Canada in 2013, but even here you can still get beaten up for being a faggot, for example. Or imagine you’re a political dissident in China. Or Russia.

    Basically, unless you’re an affluent straight white male with vanilla sexual tastes, mainline political views, and an “I’m not hiding anything” philosophy toward your Internet activity, you might have some reason to want to hide who you are sometimes.

    I’m lucky that when I was a young kid figuring out my sexuality, I could go on IRC to chat with people about it and choose whatever username I wanted—even a new one every single day if I liked. There’s no way I could have ever talked to my friends and family about it. Even with that luxury, it still took years for me to get my sexuality settled.

    It’s just irresponsible and dangerous for Google to decide that no one needs a pseudonym.

    2) I think it’s likely that no human is ever actually reading my email. That said, Google wouldn’t be the first place where unscrupulous employees have misused their access to privileged information.

    I guess this is just a protest. I feel like when I say to Google, “feel free to rifle through my mail,” there’s a tacit “because there is no such thing as privacy anymore” that I’m also saying. And I don’t want to send that message to other companies or to my government.

    3) Backing up, even from Gmail is possible. I can show you how to use software like Thunderbird to download all your emails, which you can then put on your very own hard disc for safe-keeping, if you like! :)

  3. First, ironic that I’m forced to enter my email to comment.

    Nonetheless, I’m curious what sort of hosting providers you’re recommending for hosting an email server to escape any government regulation such as the US Patriot Act? What jurisdictions are you recommending purchasing servers in?

  4. Hi Russ,

    My concern here is broader than just the worry that all data that passes through Google’s hands also goes through the NSA’s, as valid as that is, and as much as I share that concern.

    Even if I knew that Google were not passing my information on to the NSA, I still wouldn’t be comfortable with their stated and considered position that it is legitimate to ask anyone who uses their service to sacrifice their privacy in order to do so.

    Likely, and for all I know, Google is using this power only to generate personalised ads, which is, as far as invasions of privacy go, reasonably benign. But even if that is true, I don’t want to send the message that this is a good policy to the next company who comes along. Even though it already is, I don’t want it to be “a thing” where I routinely give up more of my privacy in exchange for a service so some private entity can do who-knows-what with it.

    Further, as I mentioned in “reason one,” I worry that because Google’s offerings are all tied together under a single account, I could lose a “mission critical” tool (i.e. email) at an inopportune moment over a confusion regarding Google’s (unethical) policy on real names and pseudonyms on Google Plus. This uncertainty decreases the value of Gmail to the point where it’s not worth it for me to use it anymore, even without getting anywhere near the issues with the NSA.

    So for those reasons, I am drawing a symbolic line in the sand here by choosing to decrease the number of Google products I’m using.

    The inevitable response is the classic “I don’t have anything to hide” and it’s brother, “I don’t care enough to make the change.” I am not impressed by arguments that include any hint of the “I don’t have anything to hide” philosophy, for a number of reasons. The biggest one is that saying “I don’t have anything to hide” is a selfish and inconsiderate slap in the face of everyone who legitimately does have something to hide. Given certain things from your past (OEX), I think you would understand this.

    There are a lot of people who *do* have something to hide, and not because they are committing crimes or anything like that. There are hated and vulnerable minority groups all around the world and even in Canada who need secrecy and anonymity in their communications for their safety, and not because they are doing anything even slightly wrong.

    And if the rest of us who “don’t have anything to hide” continue to say, “meh, I don’t care who reads my email,” we are making it harder for others to hide their own communications. Basically, as long as the majority is using and supporting and investing in communications systems where privacy is not a priority, it makes it harder for the minority to use and support and invest in communications systems where privacy is important.

    An example might illustrate: Imagine Mr A is trying to secretly help Mr B who is an American whistle-blower of some kind. Mr A uses Gmail. Mr B wants to communicate with Mr A, but he can’t because even though Mr B uses his own personal and secure email server, anything he ever sends to Mr A is compromised.

    Basically, by making the “I don’t have anything to hide” argument, you’re saying “my convenience is more important than your privacy and safety.”

    All that said, I can’t just go cold-turkey on email. This is mostly because I have to use it for work. There is no way I could ever convince McGill to go for a non-email mode of communication. And this sucks, mainly for the reason outlined above.

    I am under no delusion that my emails are safe from the NSA, even now that they are not being managed by Google. In fact, I am rather pessimistic about the idea of any communications system that includes email being anything that could be described as “secure.”

    The email only has to pass through an American email server once for the NSA to get their hands on it.

    I recommend Bitmessage. It is not quite ready for mass consumption yet, but I think it’s the sort of thing that early adopters / programmers / etc should invest time in, and develop.

    Hit me up if you want: BM-2DB91HNqijVn6wt9iDKD7U3KpHtFMkQgET

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