Dreaming of an internet without Google

I want to buy a Chromebook Pixel 2015. It’s made by Google, and therefore comes with Chrome OS and all the other software Google produces, but that’s not part of my decision to purchase, since I just want the hardware so I can install Linux on it. I’ve had a Macbook Pro since 2012, which naturally comes with software produced by Apple, and have had Linux installed on that too. Like the Macbook, I’m attracted by reliable, well-designed hardware on which I can run the software stack that meets my needs. Unfortunately, I should never have believed the hype about the Macbook – the screen hadn’t been QC’d properly and had dead pixels, the cooling system was dreadful (it simply ran too hot) and Linux drivers that are stable on most machines had bugs. This last issue was due to minor alterations to standards that on closer inspection, don’t appear to have any consequence besides damaging the user experience when running an operation system other than Apple’s own (Windows I suspect, but as ever Linux users get caught in the petty sales crossfire). Naturally I’m concerned I could be making a similar mistake with Google’s offering, but it turns out Google isn’t going to let our relationship get that far anyway.

I don’t really use any Google services since moving my personal email away from Google Apps (as part of the Snowden exodus), and have stayed well away ever since. I don’t have an Android phone (Firefox OS is far sounder), and I register a different Google account for every Google service I’m forced to use for work (if I’m going to have “one account for everything”, then I’ll manage and host that account on my own terms). I use a browser addon that clears out cookies associated with a domain that isn’t in an active tab, which includes everything set by Google. I use DuckDuckGo. So as you can probably guess from my habits, I’m aware that Google doesn’t really make money through selling someone like me a phone or a laptop. They make money from me running their software on the devices I buy, using their online services for work and play, buying things through their payment services, sending and receiving messages through their servers. They collect data on my personality so that other organisations can know me without ever having to meet me. As of now, they make an awful lot of money just selling intelligent advertising, but their services are increasingly broad enough for them to operate as your very own virtual hamster ball; an intermediary between you and the outside world no matter which way you turn.

At the time of writing, the new Chromebook Pixel is only available from the Google Store. Almost immediately they want me to sign into my Google account, so as ever, I register a new one. I add the laptop to my basket, enter my details and promptly discover I’m now using Google Wallet too, as a result of making a payment (I must admit it isn’t easy maintaining the one-account-per-service rule). After snooping around in the settings a bit, I discover a “verify” option for my account, which requests my legal name and address, as well as a phone number. Normally I’d avoid completing something like this, but I’m aware that Google could well be required to include this verification by card processors, and I do actually want to successfully send them some money with a debit card. After submitting this information in their form, Google thinks for a second, then spookily confirms that this is what it expected (part of me hoped this part would fail, thereby confirming that my efforts to smuggle a modicum of privacy across the internet haven’t been in vain).

Half an hour later, my order has been cancelled. After initial irritation at the lack of even an email notification, I realise I’ve entered my debit card’s billing address incorrectly, so I rectify and re-purchase. After a similar amount of time, I’m notified that my brand-spanking new Google Store/Wallet account has been suspended due to suspected fraudulent activity. What exactly made it suspicious isn’t information I’m privy to (understandably, I suppose), though after checking over my details several times, I’m unable to see anything wrong with the same data I’ve provided to literally thousands of ecommerce sites in the last decade. However, I am given the option of “account verification”. Again. This form looks different though – they want documents; a passport scan, driver’s licence, bank statements. I’ve honestly never been asked for anything like this when buying something online, so I’m fairly sure it’s not necessary. Is this an easy excuse to rope in hard personal data on someone who’s only just signed up for Google? Whatever the reason, for what feels like the 100th time, I sighed and closed the tab.

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