I tried a Big Tech diet. It didn’t go well

One man’s journey into a lonely, lonely world without Big Tech.

On a recent afternoon, I got a call from a friend asking me if I was in. I had no clue what he was talking about.

The WhatsApp group chat we’d been in for more than five years had been brainstorming about a vacation for a week, he told me. But I never got the texts. Soon, he remembered a message I’d sent out — that I was leaving WhatsApp for a privacy-focused alternative, Signal.

I didn’t join them on that trip, nor could I keep tabs on how it went via their social media updates for the following two weeks.

I missed out for a simple reason: I was on a Big Tech diet. For three weeks in February, I reduced my usage of apps and programs developed by Alphabet/Google, Meta/Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon to the fullest extent possible.

For years, Big Tech’s dominance has made me increasingly uncomfortable. Tech giants have gone from merely managing our emails to controlling how we access information, how we spend, how we navigate around cities, and more.

The Hustle

I’ve watched these companies overplay their hands and exploit their monopolies, whether that’s Microsoft turning its products into one giant billboard, Google looking to kill the open web, Apple secretly cloning human narrators’ voices, and, most recently, firms pursuing the AI mission with little regard for human rights.

As Congressman Jamie Raskin put it, "In the 19th century we had the robber barons, in the 21st century we get the cyber barons."

I was tired of their unchecked power. I was tired of being dependent on them. And I wanted to cut them out of my life.

It was much harder than I imagined.

Breaking up with Big Tech

One of my first steps in breaking up with Big Tech — and my first major setback — was downloading Big Tech Detective, a browser tool that tells you whether the site you’re visiting employs resources from a tech giant.

You probably know that many sites — some 50m — are hosted by Amazon, which earns close to three quarters of its revenue from its cloud platform AWS. Because of their ties to Amazon, I wasn’t able to browse Netflix or Reddit, not to mention Spotify and Hulu. But that was only part of it.

Big Tech Detective showed me when sites employed ads and even fonts connected to companies like Google and Amazon. I couldn’t load any of the sites I frequently browse without encountering Big Tech. Not a single one.

  • Slack sent ~100 requests to access ad tech and servers from Google, Amazon, and Microsoft. Wikipedia sent ~35.
  • Even the sites for my online journalism portfolio and bank had nearly 50 connections to Big Tech. 

“When we built Big Tech Detective, we wanted to show that the internet is virtually impossible if you avoid services provided by just four companies: Amazon, Facebook, Google and Microsoft,” said Becky Chao, director of antimonopoly at the Economic Security Project Action, a nonprofit that works to check corporate power in the US.

She was right. And we haven’t even fully entered the AI era yet.

The Hustle

It may only get harder to break free from Big Tech in the AI era as those companies hold the resources to train modern large machine language models, says Yuvraj Agarwal, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Basically, any website or app that uses AI will have yet another connection to Big Tech.

Realizing the difficulty of a full-on Big Tech cleanse, I called Rory Mir, community director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for and defends digital civil rights and freedom. Mir told me Big Tech’s tentacles spread even further than fonts and web hosting.

Tech giants not only control the apps and hardware we use but also the critical infrastructure underpinning the internet, including much of the cable network that runs along ocean beds to deliver internet across continents.

To truly divest from Big Tech, he said I probably needed to “move into the mountains and live off the grid.”

So Mir suggested something else: a diet, or digital veganism.

Instead of going cold turkey, I decided to more carefully pick the tech I use and prevent Big Tech from collecting and storing my data. 

Going digital vegan

To an extent, I had already taken the first steps to become a digital vegan over the last few years. Since the decline of Facebook and Twitter, for example, I’ve been active on open-source alternatives like Mastodon and Bluesky. The rise in low-quality spam on Google pushed me in January to try DuckDuckGo. The AI-fication of Microsoft Edge made me switch to Mozilla Firefox. 

A year after Elon Musk purchased Twitter, the site’s monthly users fell 15% and ad revenue dropped 54%. (Jaap Arriens/Nur Photo via Getty Images)

After taking Mir’s advice, my digital vegan diet looked something like this: 

  • Proton Mail replaced Gmail
  • Signal swapped out iMessage and WhatsApp
  • iPhone and Android phones made way for iodé
  • Linux instead of macOS
  • Mastodon and Bluesky for social media
  • DuckDuckGo took Google’s spot
  • Mozilla Firefox took over Microsoft Edge’s duties

Switching from Gmail to an end-to-end encrypted email platform, Proton Mail, wasn’t difficult. I imported existing emails and contacts, forwarded incoming mail, and activated an auto-responder to let people know I’d moved to a new ID. 

While colleagues and clients soon began reaching out to me on Proton, it wasn’t nearly as easy to find a replacement for iMessage (Apple) and WhatsApp (Meta). I downloaded Signal, but there was no way for me to set up an auto-responder to forward messages. I struggled to convince more than a handful of close friends and family members to download Signal and join me.

Over on Mastodon, I felt lonely. After a spark of initial curiosity last year, people had returned to Instagram and Twitter. My exodus from another social media site, Microsoft’s LinkedIn, cost me a couple of work opportunities when I discovered messages from recruiters a few days too late.

More importantly, even though I had booted Big Tech apps, I was still exposed to their hardware. While I could easily de-Apple my Mac and install a safer Linux operating system, doing so on an iPhone was nearly impossible.

A few searches led me to iodé, a French startup that sells Android phones outfitted with special, private software. It’s free of any Google services and prevents third parties from tracking you in the background.

To aid me in my quest (for this story), iodé loaned me a modified Fairphone 5, a repairable phone meant to last seven years. However, as soon as I set it up, it presented me with a conundrum. Since most apps take advantage of Google’s notification tools, I could either choose to receive alerts from apps like Signal and send anonymous data to Google — or not be notified at all.

I picked the latter and it left me isolated. Friends and colleagues wondered why it took me hours to respond to texts. At the same time, I enjoyed the quiet and didn’t notice the absence of distractions after a few days.

Still, as with adopting any diet, going digitally vegan was exhausting. Migrating a decade-plus of online presence took nearly a week. And some of my new tools and apps left me wanting more.

  • DuckDuckGo wasn’t as extensive as Google, and it began to affect research for my work assignments.
  • Linux didn’t support the notes app of my choice — Bear — that I was accustomed to on my Mac.  

 

The Hustle

 

More than anything, I felt left out. I often didn’t learn about dinners and tennis matches with family and friends until someone called to tell me about them. I would look blankly when someone asked me whether I’d seen that viral Instagram reel or read a controversial Twitter thread.

Without Big Tech and its reach, the internet, sadly, was a little less smooth — and a lot more solitary.

My reluctant return

It took me three weeks to cut down my Big Tech dependence. But I couldn’t disentangle myself from a handful of their major products.

I returned to WhatsApp and LinkedIn so I didn’t lose touch with friends or miss out on professional opportunities. While I could purchase most of what I needed from local stores, I visited Amazon a few times to buy niche products, such as my coffee machine’s filters.

I also kept streaming shows on Netflix, despite it being hosted by Amazon. I didn’t find any viable streaming alternatives untethered from Big Tech.

I wasn’t alone in this process, though. To discover the best anti-Big Tech solutions, I came across thriving communities like Privacy Guides, a website that educates people on privacy-centric alternatives and hosts nearly half a million visitors each month, and “DeGoogle,” a Reddit community of about 90k that goes to great lengths to block tech giants. 

Focusing on compartmentalizing "Big Tech" services, to send them as little data as possible, is the most effective path for a quick Big Tech diet, according to Jonah Aragon, an expert from Privacy Guides. He recommended using privacy-focused services wherever one can and opting out of invasive Big Tech features like location tracking. 

 

The Hustle

John Evans, a Denver-based physicist regulating greenhouse gas emissions for the state of Colorado, joined the “DeGoogle” movement after growing frustrated over frequent data breaches. He uses Microsoft and Google products at work but has shut Big Tech out of his personal life — even going as far as building a custom smart display to control his home.

Evans knows such drastic solutions are out of reach for most people. But government crackdowns on Big Tech could change that. In Europe, for instance, new rules will soon allow people to switch messaging apps without losing their contacts or chats.

For now, however, digital vegans will have to power through on their own and find support groups where they can, like I did.

My three-week experiment was liberating in some ways, convincing me several privacy-centric services were superior in function. I plan to keep using Proton Mail instead of Gmail.

But my time as a digital vegan ultimately felt like an eternity. Sourcing alternatives was a cumbersome process. I spent several hours on communities like DeGoogle and Privacy Guides to figure out the best platforms and learn how to set them up.

In the end, that might be Big Tech’s greatest strength: Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft have accumulated so much power that it’s inconvenient to even consider alternatives.

And, for me, at least one crucial part of my livelihood depends on them. I filed this story using Google Docs.New call-to-action

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