Can you really opt out?

In 2017 tech reporter Kashmir Hill reported on an experiment trying to opt out of Google, Facebook and Amazon.  It was "hell," she said. She set up a blocker on her router so no sites affiliated with the big three could get through, essentially locking herself out of the internet. She put away her smartphone and found herself without the basic tools of daily life. At one point she even locked herself out of her apartment, spending ages on a New York street corner trying desparately to piece the information she needed together to get back in. Finally she gave up, declaring that you cannot live without Big Tech.

In general, I am a fan of Kashmir and her reporting. We spoke years ago when I concealed my first pregnancy from the Internet. And this five-week "experiment" made for great writing as it bordered upon the absurd.

But she did us all a disservice.

The idea is now firmly planted in people's heads that you simply cannot opt out of Big Tech. It's too hard. They're too big and too pervasive. It's also way too inconvenient: no one wants to be locked out of their apartments, or the Internet for that matter. People have given up. If you're a tech company, you couldn't have paid for better advertising.

This is wrong. It strips us of our one major power: the power to choose, to vote with our feet. It robs us of the chance to write our own future, to invest in non-creepy alternatives.

And it's untrue. Because you can opt out. I'm living proof. 

So what did Kashmir get wrong? Where do we diverge?

1. One system at a time

Opting out takes planning and preparation. You will eventually build an entire alternative tech ecosystem from a new series of devices and services. But you cannot leap there all at once, even in five weeks. It disrupts too many of your routines, throws too many proverbial babies out with bathwater, and doesn't allow you to build robust relationships or habits that will stick.

Trying to opt out of everything at the same time is like that scene in the old 80's movie, Airplane. When something goes wrong, the captain says, "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit smoking!" A few minutes later, when the next thing goes awry, the same character says, "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit drinking!" And a few moments after that, "Looks like I picked the wrong week to quit sniffing glue!"

The scene is ludicrous, because almost no one battling an addiction can successfully beat multiple addictions at once--well, unless they remove themselves entirely from society for a significant period of time. Addiction is behavioral as well as biological. You need time to change your routines and make sure those changes stick. You have to have enough support mustered around you so that you don't jump out of the frying pan -- and then decide it was pretty cosy in there and you'd rather get right back in again.

Personally, I first left Google services in 2012. I was dismayed at the change to their privacy policy that allowed them to aggregate all user data around a single profile -- that's enough to make anyone pinpointable in the data, regardless of whether or not it's "anonymized." (Differential privacy wasn't an option in 2012).

I left Facebook in early 2016. I used the same "break up" technique but with a few additional twists. After a lot of experimenting with alternative systems, I put away my last iPhone for good in 2017. Each of these moments took planning, ensuring I had the right systems in place to leap to, so I wouldn't look back.

Leave Google, Facebook, then Amazon? Yes, you can do that. Leave them all at once? You're setting yourself up to fail.

2. It can't be all or nothing

Perhaps surprisingly for someone who is pretty intense about data privacy, I think we should be strategic instead of extremist. For instance, going so far as to block sites hosted by the big services. Blocking Amazon W3 is like shutting off half the Internet; add Microsoft Azure and Google sites and you're left with, like, Geocities or something.

It's important to demonstrate that these companies are turning themselves into the infrastructure of the internet. Of course, they're patting themselves on the back in doing so, promoting websites hosted on their own big services in your search queries.

However, to hobble these companies, it is just as effective to shut off their revenue at another source. That's why I start with the main part of their money-making business, the part that fuels their investments in cloud services and helps them embed themselves in every website on the net.

That is, I want to break the personal data economy: the whole system where they record everything about you online, use it to serve you personalized content, keep you addicted to scrolling, and drive wedges between you and others, and make billions while disavowing the discord that results.

We can do it if we just stop systems from knowing everything about us.

That's why I don't think we need to leave entirely. We can be selective. Divide your data up across services. Log out of the single log-ins. Set up Ghostery or Firefox containers, or another blocking system that makes it impossible for companies to track you from one site to another. Use my opt out techniques to keep your data segmented and divided up. As long as you don't let a single platform track you across the web and build up a picture of you, you are dismantling the power those companies have to ruin our lives.

The power of the platforms comes from tracking us across so many different parts of our lives. Meta, Google, and others do so with a single profile, their trackers embedded in our browsers when we log in, with all the data that we enter into it, including our statuses and our photographs. Oh, and by confusing us into forgetting that Facebook, Instagram, and WhatsApp are all actually the same company. Same with Google, Picasa, Ring and YouTube.

To break that power, don't show them everything. Just opt out.

3. Empower us to make change!

The saying that you just can't opt out of Big Tech plays right into their hands. It is the kind of brand advertising those companies wish they could buy--and they got it for free! The idea only serves the Big Tech companies. It does not serve us.

Opting out should undermine these systems, not re-entrench them. It should make us feel empowered, not helpless. 

I am a conscientious objector. My reasons for leaving are grounded in my expertise. We are already living through the dangers that were promised by embracing these technologies (not all technologies, these data-sucking algorithmic ones).

It's a one-way street to social catastrophe. No, it's not the kind of creative "disruption" that's just the de-facto result of innovation. It's the irresponsible result of not listening: to psychologists, historians, sociologists, human-computer interaction experts, lawyers and others who warned against the resulting ills. The results are profitable even if they are driving children to suicide, reinforcing racism, and fuelling genocide.

For me, opting out is a moral imperative.

It doesn't have to be this way. But it won't be anything different if we don't make the choice. And if we don't feel empowered, we won't make the change that's within our grasp.

If we don't choose different systems, we'll keep feeding racist algorithms, manipulative governments, and body dysphoria just by the very act of logging in, liking, commenting and scrolling.

Certainly, I understand the tactic of pushing for regulation by saying that it's too hard for individuals. I wish I could say I had faith in regulation to take this problem away from us. Maybe it's one too many clips making the rounds of a some senator "grilling" a social media guru, asking them to "turn off Finsta," but personally I'm not holding my breath.

By all means, we need smart regulation, and quickly. But the best, most long-lasting change happens from the bottom-up, not just the top-down.

That's why it's up to us.

Our actions matter. Like the environmental movement, making small changes in our lives can make a big difference. And like that movement too, working together is the key to getting anywhere.

Starting from a place of powerless isn't the way forward. Working together with optimism, empowering ourselves, sharing ideas and skills: that is what animates me, and inspired me to start this site.

We can opt out, and we must. Let's build the movement, together.