Leaving Gmail

by William Schuth in ,


With your permission, you give us more information about you, about your friends, and we can improve the quality of our searches. We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.
— Eric Schmidt, Google Chairman & former CEO

Three weeks ago I did something I had been building toward for nearly a year. I quit using Gmail for my personal correspondence. Below is the message I sent to my family & friends:

Friends,

I started using this Gmail address in April 2005, which today seems like a lifetime ago. (In fact, it is.) In the last couple of months you may have seen me send an occasional email from a new address: [redacted] As of today, that is my permanent email address for personal correspondence. (If you read no further, please update your address books accordingly.)

Moving away from Google’s services has been a personal goal of mine for a good while. Some of you may have been Google Reader users for years until Google decided to pull the plug on that service. I think most of us found new homes for RSS reading after that, but our article-sharing community was lost. Some of you may have enjoyed our circles on Google+ after a migration away from Facebook, only to be dismayed by the way Google seemed intent on leveraging the information we shared there and the G+ service itself to erode our personal privacy.  Marco Arment, a very savvy app developer & tech writer, made some good points three years ago about why trusting Google to continue providing Gmail service – as we know it, or even at all– isn’t a good idea.

The long-term viability of my correspondence with you is something I do care about, because I love sharing our ideas & enthusiasms. But what made going to my own private email host an imperative was simply the fact that Google’s true business isn’t web searches, Android, or Google Docs for large businesses, but selling advertisements based on our personal information – our web searches, our Google+ posts, and especially our private correspondence. Think of it this way – if you give your doctor, lawyer, or trusted confidant your Gmail address, Google’s algorithms can pick apart what you have to say to one another and will target you with advertisements based on the content of your emails. Google filed legal documents last year stating you have no reason to expect privacy if you use Gmail. That’s the price we pay for using Gmail. The aggregate of our private information is worth billions of dollars to Google’s true customers – companies that want to sell you things and would pay someone to read your email to know whether you’re looking for a new car, grief counseling, or a way out of legal trouble. I don’t want to share that information with Google anymore, and I don’t feel right sharing your info – confidential or well-known –  with Google, either. (You can read even more about Google's privacy issues at the “Criticisms of Google” Wikipedia article.)

Setting up my own email was pretty easy. The new address works on my phone, my tablet, and my laptop just like any other email address. It does cost me a little money – some to keep my domain registered (think of this as Internet property tax), and some to pay the service that runs the server that hosts my email. My total cost to keep our correspondence private (on my end, anyway), while enjoying even more features than Gmail, is just $1.03 per week. Couch cushion money, folks. And because I pay FastMail to host my email, I no longer have to worry about who’s really paying the freight on a “free” service like Gmail. If you find yourself interested in going the same route, let me know – I’ll be happy to help you get started.

So, friends, I look forward to carrying on our conversations in a corner of the Internet a bit more private than Gmail. Look me up; I’ll be there.

Signing off from [redacted]@gmail.com,

W

Shortly after I sent that email, I began to wonder whether my friends would perceive me as a crank. While I still worry a bit about that, for the most part my correspondence has gone on as before. I say "for the most part" because, since I left Gmail I've actually found myself writing to friends more frequently and carrying on email conversations much longer than I have in years. My email independence has become an email renaissance. I feel as though I should send Eric Schmidt a Thank You card.

My email independence has brought with it an email renaissance.

I wonder how many people my age will eventually leave "free" email providers like Gmail. My generation came of age using services like Hotmail, and over the years we've integrated many new revolutionary technologies – email, the Internet, digital music & video, smartphones, tablets, social media, etc – deep into our daily lives. I suspect many folks of my generation have used Gmail for over a decade. At this point, Google knows a fair bit about our lives, likely more about our adult selves than we've shared with our parents or siblings. I think it's a fair question to ask whether we're comfortable with an advertising company knowing more about us than our closest relatives.

Let's think about this for a moment from a different perspective.

Imagine if you went into a coffee shop with a friend. You've just found this shop, and the coffee is pretty good and so cheap the owner is practically giving it away! You and your friend sit down and start talking about the new puppy you're hoping to get soon. You had to put your old dog to sleep a few months ago, and you've just now started to feel like you're ready for a new companion. After a while, the owner of the coffee shop comes up and suggests you buy a puppy from his friend who has a litter due next week. You think he's little nosy and presumptuous, but hey, who doesn't like puppies?

You come back to the coffee shop a week later with another friend. Her car was totaled by a guy who was texting while driving, and now she needs to find some new wheels. You discuss the different features she's looking for over coffee, and after a while the coffee shop owner sidles up again. He tells you and your friend that he has a buddy who owns a dealership that has a great sale on right now. And, since he couldn't help but overhear, the coffee shop owner asks your friend if she's considered contacting a personal injury lawyer. He knows a great one who doesn't charge unless he wins the case (and he always wins, but the defendant will pay...) As you turn to face your friend, you notice the look on her face and wonder if the coffee's not agreeing with her.

One day you get a call from another friend who has been struggling with depression. He needs someone to talk to, and he trusts you to be discreet. You suggest meeting for coffee. As your friend shares his troubles, the coffee shop owner drifts over and listens. After a few minutes he suggests that your friend visit his buddy, who's a great psychiatrist. And he has reasonable rates! Your friend's face reddens with embarrassment and anger.

Would you continue to visit that coffee shop? Sure, the coffee's cheap and fairly good, but the owner's a bit of a creep.

Gmail is that coffee shop, and Google is that coffee shop owner. Why should we tolerate online behavior that would seem intrusive and creepy in person?

Over the last year I came to decide I wasn't comfortable bringing friends into that coffee shop anymore. When a friend tells me something in confidence via email I don't want Google scanning or parsing our conversation, looking for an angle to display an ad for some product or service. After a decade of using Gmail (and social media with similar boundary/privacy issues, like Facebook), I'm not comfortable with that level of intrusion anymore. It made me feel gross. It made me feel like a bad friend because I knew how easy it would be handle my own email.

Three weeks later, handling my own email is exactly as easy as I knew it was, and I'm enjoying corresponding with people more, in part because I don't feel like a bad friend now.

Am I saying you're a bad friend if you keep using Gmail? No, I'm not. I just want you to consider the implications of a "free" email service and what that means for your and your friends' privacy. And I want you to know you have other, easy-to-use options for your email that don't involve letting an advertising company record your correspondence with your family, your friends, or anyone else.