Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce Bye, bye Gmail, even snooping has its limits

Bye, bye Gmail, even snooping has its limits

Last week I shut down the last of my three Gmail accounts. From 2007, to a greater or lesser extent, these three accounts were used for various purposes, initially enthusiastically, later reluctantly.

Why get away from Gmail altogether? The company has always been snooping on email and feeding through advertisements based on keywords in the mail. But from March 1, the spying will become over-arching, ostensibly to provide a better customer experience.

I want no part of it.

Until a fortnight ago, I was one among the masses who railed at Google for its "deception", and castigated the company for increasing the degree to which it will snoop on its users.

But then a single article I read — and I can recall neither the title nor where I read it — brought me to my senses.

Simply put, the article pointed out that there was one way to tell Google that its policies were becoming extreme – stop using its services. Of course, the escapist argument is that one person quitting never makes a difference. But then if everyone argued that way, there would be no boycotts at all.

The first time I noticed the snooping was back in March 2010 when I was reading an email from the editor of iTWire, Stan Beer. I noticed the ads above the open email changing and watched fascinated as words from the email attracted related ads. It annoyed the hell out of me.

I was on the verge of moving my home server over to an Atom-based mini-ITX box at that time; when I did make the move about a month later, I consulted a friend, who is my UNIX guru, and, with his help, set up webmail on the new box.

SquirrelMail is not as polished a system as Gmail but it is more than adequate. The important thing was that my mail was now under my own control. Within a month, I stopped using Gmail for personal mail. My own server did the job adequately.

But then you know what lethargy in these matters is like. One does not bother about old things lying around – and the three Gmail accounts I had were like that. They were there, always available, and I used them for subscriptions to mailing lists and the like. Plus the occasional official email. I always consoled myself with the line that Google could no longer snoop on my personal email.

It was easy to con myself – until the new Google "privacy" policy was announced earlier this year. Actually, make that "lack of privacy policy" – because that's what it is.

The new policy will link user data across email, video, social-networking and other Google services – from Gmail to YouTube to the Google Plus social network.

Some may argue that we are already making our lives public by using the internet. I believe that there is a limit. A bloody limit.

I could well have written a piece mauling Google about its policies – and, like a common hypocrite, continue to use its services. It's more difficult to give it up as it involves doing without something which I had gotten used to.

Gmail is the most common Google app I use. It's easy to keep swallowing the Kool-Aid. No longer is that the case.

Like any other habit — operating systems, cigarettes, booze — giving up Gmail was difficult. There were so many emails that I wanted to back up, tons of mail I had to look at before shutting down those three accounts. Fortunately, there is a wonderful little utility called Getmail for GNU/Linux systems. Using Getmail to pull in the mail from Gmail was child's play. Once that was done, there was really no excuse to retain  the accounts any more.

The Internet existed long before Google did. It is built on free and open source software, with protocols that are open as well. Genuine geeks and nerds did the building without any thought of making money.

Now we have advertising and marketing companies masquerading as technology companies and trying to squeeze every stray dollar, rouble, pound, euro and dirham out of people. And doing it under the guise of "improving the customer experience".

No one company should be allowed to monopolise the services on the net and milk user data to sell its ads or any other service or product. There's a time to wake up and for me that time is now.


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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.