Developing with the big five

As I mentioned last week, there’s been growing concern over the influence that large technology companies, particularly Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple, have over our use of technology and, by extension, our daily lives.

Gizmodo journalist Kashmir Hill spent six weeks blocking these tech companies to prevent them from getting her “money, data, and attention”. The series of articles, Goodbye Big Five, (which are still in progress), detail the difficulty involved in cutting yourself off from the products and services that these companies provide.

It is difficult but not impossible to do without Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Github, Skype, LinkedIn, Twitch, Gmail and Google Search; there are plenty of ways to connect with people.

But it gets harder when you have to stop using Netflix, which stores data in Amazon’s cloud-based storage service, and Spotify, which uses Google’s competing product. Or you’re unable to use Uber because it uses Google Maps.

The latest part of the Kashmir Hill experiment, about dropping Google, is really interesting because huge chunks of the internet slowed or broke because websites are so enmeshed with Google services. Even simple websites might use a number of Google services like Analytics, Maps, Web Fonts and ReCAPTCHA.

As a developer or a site owner, it’s sobering to think that your site might not work because access to Google is broken. And, since the impetus behind the experiment was concern about supporting companies that are unethical and predatory in their desire for extracting personal data, it’s a worry that developers seem to rarely consider the alternatives to these services.

I should note, at this point, that I am writing this on a MacBook Air (Apple) connected to an Apple Cinema Display, on a website that uses Google ReCAPTCHA and Amazon Web Services. The code for this website is stored in a paid GitHub account (Microsoft) and developed using the Atom editor (Github/Microsoft) and most frequently tested in the Chrome browser (Google). I have an Instagram account (Facebook), a LinkedIn profile (Microsoft) and maintain an account for development purposes with Facebook. I have ongoing subscriptions to Google Music and G Suite, as well as, pay-as-you-go usage of Google and Amazon cloud services.

I’m not coming at this topic from a place of moral superiority and technical independence but I came of age when people hoped that the internet would bring about a techno-utopia. Battles were fought and closed gardens like AOL and Prodigy were defeated by the openness of the web. Microsoft Internet Explorer was felled by Mozilla and the best parts of Web 2.0 were a product of web standards and open source technology. So I find it troubling to see things contracted, yet again, away from openness and decentralisation, to a reliance on large corporations who have a huge influence of the direction of the internet and over the way we interact with it.

What the internet has failed to provide, in the past twenty years, is a better economic model than advertising. There are still plenty of parts of the web where open source still means that something is libre but there are far more examples where “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold”.

So, when you’re developing a website and make the decision to use Google Analytics, that not only makes you complicit in surveillance capitalism, the increasingly problematic economy of personal data mining, but you’re also making a decision for your client and the visitors of the website you’re building.

Over the year I’m going to trial and write about replacement services and methods to avoid some of the common third-party products. And I’m going to review the decisions I make about the companies I support because I’m not sure I want to support businesses that provide AI technology to the military or data storage to the US intelligence community.