A version of this post initially appeared in OneZero.
Writing in 1972 for Rolling Stone magazine, Stewart Brand described the nascent ARPANET (the computer network which would one day evolve into the modern Internet) with a mix of hope and unease that could be translated surprisingly well in the modern era. “How Net usage will evolve is uncertain,” wrote Brand.
There’s a curious mix of theoretical fascination and operational resistance around the scheme. The resistance may have something to do with reluctances about equipping a future Big Brother and his Central Computer. The fascination resides in the thorough rightness of computers as communications instruments, which implies some revolutions.
The revolutions came. An entire generation has grown up with access to the world’s knowledge at their fingertips. We also see today’s internet “resistance.” The extent to which a few technology companies now almost totally embody, enable, or support the services we depend upon has dawned on our collective consciousness only lately. It is not uncommon to find articles describing efforts to try — and typically to fail — to eliminate major technology companies from our daily lives, even temporarily.
A certain acceptance of futility is necessary for any experiment in limiting access of technology companies to one’s private life.
These attempts are unsuccessful because Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft provide “infrastructural platforms” — cross-cutting services that support and connect a multitude of other companies and markets. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft are the de facto hosting solutions for a vast number of other services. Google has a 92% market share of search, the primary way for people to find content. Google and Facebook together constitute 60% of the online advertising market. Each possesses a broad swath of data collection mechanisms, including their own platforms, their partners, and tracking utilities, which enable them to surveil us as we traverse the internet. As José Van Dijck, Thomas Poell, and Martijn de Waal point out in their book, The Platform Society:
Theoretically, users can decide at any moment individually or collectively to opt out of [big tech] services. In practice, opting-out is hardly an option for users who want to participate in society or who simply need to make a living.
Tinkering with the software that powers our daily machines is a hobby for many people who are comfortable with technology, but a certain level of boldness (or foolhardiness) is required to alter the fundamental infrastructure of one’s daily smartphone. A laptop is, after all, just a laptop; a phone is a lifeline to the universe — the conduit for our daily conversations, the primary form of authentication for online services, a source of media, and a critical guide for navigating the world. To dramatically change the function of a phone, or to risk breaking it altogether, is to risk being cut off from some of the most important interactions of daily life. But to do so can prove valuable, if it reveals something about the way our technology shapes our daily experience, and illustrates how our interactions and routines depend upon systems we rarely consider.
A certain acceptance of futility is necessary for any experiment in limiting access of technology companies to one’s private life; one speaks of “reducing” rather than “eliminating,” of “cutting back,” rather than “cutting off.”
For my part, I have joined in the zeitgeist of growing concern over big tech companies and awareness of corporate surveillance. As a result, I’ve made a number of changes to my use of technology, seeking to shift the bounds, where possible, of where my information resides and who accesses it. These changes have involved adopting open source, ideally self-hosted services that frequently require a server and a fair measure of technical know-how to make work. But, like a child learning to swim only in the shallow end of a pool, I realized there was a limit to what I could do.
I had adopted dozens of open-source applications on my phone, but the phone itself was still deeply integrated in Google services. Every contact that I made was stored in a Google contacts database; many essential apps were installed through the Google Play store. Google Play Services — a bundle of APIs that enable Google to push notifications and updates and maintain a user tracking infrastructure and ad delivery service — delivered many fundamental elements of the Android experience. The Google Search bar sat on my home screen, unmovable and intransigent.
The question arose: How much could be done to reduce Google on my phone and step away from the technology giant?
With a cheap USB flash drive, a self-hosted Nextcloud server on Raspberry Pi can have many times the storage capacity of a free Google account. Photo courtesy of the author
Opportunity in a dying phone
The slow death of my smartphone, its lithium-ion battery gradually sputtering out after three years of arduous service, presented me with an opportunity to try and break out of that environment, or at least to shift its bounds. The phone would soon need to be replaced — what loss would it be, if it finally ended up broken in the pursuit of science?
The majority of smartphones run some configuration of Android, an open source operating system designed and maintained by Google. Google distributes Android for free, partly because it derives revenue from the app store that comes with the OS, partly because each of the several billion phones it powers provides a window into the life of its user and a chance to push them toward Google products or sell them Google ads. Because it is open source, companies are able to modify the operating system to create a custom distribution, or “distro” — a unique flavor of Android that tweaks or adjusts that open source core. It is therefore possible to create a distro that runs Google software without relying on Google’s service infrastructure. LineageOS — an operating system that is almost pure Android — lets you choose to include or not include the Google suite of apps.
Installing an alternative operating system on your phone requires venturing into the strange and deeply unsettling world of recovery bootloaders. Image: How To Geek
Transplanting a custom distribution into a smartphone entails a fair measure of trepidation. I spent a lot of time sweating over LineageOS’s instructions, which, if followed to the letter, promise to wipe everything that made your phone function and then return it from the dead with a new and different OS. As I progressed, my phone issued a series of increasingly dire warnings meant to deter non-developers, somewhat channeling the death of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey (“Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?”). A careful unlocking of the systems protecting a phone’s startup software permits loading a temporary program to facilitate the deletion of my old data and the installation of my operating system. After about 30 minutes of muttered prayers and nervous double-and-triple-checking of instructions, I was rewarded with a phone reborn, sporting a pure new OS with very, very few applications on it.
A Brave New World
Manipulating a phone without Google Play Services feels strange, like using a limb that has fallen asleep and responds to instructions strangely. None of the stock Google applications are present — Google Drive, Gmail, and Google Maps are absent from the app drawer. The ubiquitous Google Search bar disappears from the home screen. The Google Assistant vanishes. My contacts database is empty (and must be regenerated through a backup). The stock browser is simply called “Browser.” And, most tellingly, the Google Play Store is nowhere to be found, a fact that quickly becomes apparent when I attempt to do something outside of a web browser.
It is in the loss of applications that the absence of Google is most clearly felt. Apps are what make a smartphone essential to daily life; servicing our impulses at the push of a button, they connect us to our news and media, to navigation, to messaging clients and the broader world. Android without Google feels akin to an empty sandbox. Counterintuitively, the immediate sensation upon loading up a Google-free phone is constraint.
To install apps on a phone without the Google Play Store, you need an alternate source of applications. It’s possible to download and install Android apps directly off the internet, but this option rapidly becomes unmanageable. Gone are the days of static software that is released and endures without significant change until the next version is released. Many development teams edit their code daily, and the alterations can frequently result in official updates several times a week. In a world where new features are constantly created and security flaws are constantly uncovered, it is not only impracticable but dangerous to use out-of-date software on an internet-enabled device. For this reason, the Google Play App store typically keeps a constant watch on changes in apps and updates them, often in the background. Without an automated service of some kind handling this task, the user is overwhelmed — the use of a device subsumed to the act of maintaining it.
F-Droid is an open source alternative to the Google Play Store. Can you find the app you were looking for here? Probably not, but you might find a free, open source alternative. Image: F-Droid
Those of us seeking an alternative to Google Play can find a refuge in a number of different options, but the most established alternative provider of free and open-source apps on Android is F-Droid. F-Droid keeps a repository of thousands of apps and takes on the task of notifying the user about changes and updates. In terms of overall experience, the process of finding an application is very similar to using Google Play Services: You search for an app, read the description provided by the developer, and download. There’s no review system to be found, so we’re left to make a judgment based on the quality of the images and descriptions left by the author (and how recently the app has been updated). Many crucial tasks are possible through open-source apps.
In my experiment, I used F-Droid to install a suite of different open source services: OsmAnd+ to replace Google Maps, Telegram and Riot for messaging, Fedilab for a Twitter-like social experience, Nextcloud (for cloud file management), AntennaPod, and various browsers. Each experience was comparable — though not identical — to those provided by for-profit, data or ad-driven companies.
When using free and open-source software, it’s easy to feel a sense of liberation. “Open source” does not necessarily connote a rejection of profit — indeed, some of the biggest tech companies maintain open source software as a part of their business model. Nevertheless, somehow in this hyper-capitalist age many developers have combined forces to create software free for anyone to use. Certainly the hardware it runs on cost money, as does the data connection that transfigures the phone from a paperweight made of rare-earth minerals, glass, and plastic into a portal to the whole of the world’s information, but the software itself is free. As one deploys these apps to find new places, speak with people, access and share information, it’s possible to envision a world of collaboration and technological plenty, where people collaborate for the common good.
At its best, this is what a device running open-source software delivers. In a world where six in 10 Americans believe that it is not possible to go through their daily life without their data being collected, truly open-source operating systems convey a sense that the watchers are held at bay. Interactions between the user and the machine — if not inviolate — are at least guarded by an honest servant. It’s a glimpse of what technology is supposed to be, an interaction that leaves us “all more empowered,” as Brand put it, “as individuals and co-operators.”
While many functions can be filled with open-source alternatives, specific services are only available through the Google Play Store. Although Signal and ProtonMail are open source, they rely on Google Play Services to send notifications. Other proprietary, but nevertheless essential services, such as popular two-factor authentication applications or password managers, are likewise dependent. If at any point you’re reliant on a service that isn’t obtainable through an open-source marketplace, you’re faced with a difficult choice: either to abandon it or to limit the scope of your endeavor to be Google free.
A half-compromise presents itself, satisfying neither the goal of a phone without Google or the convenience Google provides. Aurora is an open-source interface for the Google Play Store, which enables you to crack a window on the “no Google” policy rather than fully open the door. You log in with your Google credentials and access the Google Play Store library of free applications. We’re therefore dependent on a proprietary big-tech service to obtain applications, but because Google Play Services is not installed, Google’s ad-delivery and tracking mechanisms are still omitted.
Apps installed through this process often function strangely. Notifications that rely on Google Play Services break, so Twitter and ProtonMail are silent until opened. (Depending on the user, this might be an improvement.) Other applications, like Authy, send a warning whenever they are opened, vehemently protesting that they don’t function without Google Play Services. Sometimes this notice was the only indication that something had gone awry, creating an experience somewhat akin to walking through a building with an active fire alarm but no obvious sign of flames. One can be certain something is going wrong, it’s just not visible at this moment. And other applications failed to work altogether. My beloved NPR One app couldn’t function without the support of the Google infrastructure — a hint that my project had an end date.
Everyone who tries to eliminate big tech from their lives finds an end point. When pushing out of the cozy apps and services that power our daily interactions, things become harder to do, less convenient, more cumbersome. At the outset, it may be possible to find open-source and free alternative applications that mirror, or at least, approximate the behavior of our services, perhaps with a little less polish, perhaps with a different or diminished functionality. Eventually, however, orthodoxy requires not just adaptation but abnegation, a limitation of one’s own actions and impulses. I ended up drawing the line at a phone that constantly protested that lack of Google Play Services. I am willing to tolerate my own craving of seamless convenience; I’m less willing to accept when my device itself is harping on its addiction to tech giants, protesting like a traveling companion that never signed on to the destination.
Ripping out Google Play Services might have allowed me to see what a “phone without Google” felt like, but it didn’t do anything to prevent the death of my hardware. My battery was clearly kicking the bucket, and I knew that a new phone was just around the corner. One Saturday evening I held my breath, and repeated the process from the beginning to wipe my phone and restore it to a clean, standard Android experience. A refurbished replacement phone arrived in the mail, and my dead device was sent off to replace it. As I held the replacement device in my hand, I considered what I should do with it. A part of me wanted to wipe my phone as I had before, remove the Google Play Services and try to push the bounds a bit further.
It’s possible to envision a world of collaboration and technological plenty, where people collaborate for the common good.
The impulse was fleeting. I submitted. I booted up the phone as normal, signed into my Google account, and initiated the relapse, downloading the proprietary apps and experiences that power my daily life. Hello again, Big Brother.
There are trends in the open-source community that suggest that phones that deliver on Android’s original promise of an “open” operating system are not too far off. At the time this article is written, at least two hardware companies are in the early stages of developing a phone capable of running a Linux-based operating system. Purism’s $749 Librem 5 phone is an attempt at both open software and hardware, with a phone that, when finished, will run Linux-based applications through its PureOS operating system on hardware that is almost all free of proprietary code. The cheaper PinePhone ($149) is likewise an open phone capable of running Linux-based distributions such as UBports, postmarketOS, or Sailfish OS. None of these operating systems rely on software dependent on big technology companies to function. And none — as yet — provide an experience to compete with the convenience and effortless functionality of proprietary big tech solutions. Hopefully, as they mature, they provide a viable alternative for people who are concerned about the prevalence of big tech in our big lives, but that day has not yet come except for an enthusiastic minority of users.
Even the most die-hard advocates for an open-source ecosystem acknowledge that a community of fringe adopters of experimental solutions won’t solve the problem of technology giants run amok, gluttons for the world’s personal data. As Zeynep Tufecki writes, “Data privacy is … like air quality or safe drinking water, a public good that cannot be effectively regulated by trusting in the wisdom of millions of individual choices. A more collective response is needed.” Until regulation by governments can address the issue, mandating greater data protections, those of us seeking technology without big tech must live on the experiential fringe. Adventuring into the realm of open-source, privacy respecting software, while occasionally limiting, provides a technological freedom that today is rare and altogether fleeting.