A Technophiles Journey Off the Grid

Cookie Monster freaks out over cookies on his computer

Image by Surian Soosay

Okay, so it is likely impossible to actually “use” the Internet without it “using” you back. I get that. Terms of service get changed without clear explanation, cookies get saved, NSA snoops do what NSA snoops do. The whole business model of the Interwebs is set up to trade your info for access.

I’m under no illusions.

But, after the Great Target Hack and Edward Snowden’s revelations regarding the NSA (I think we were all waiting for these things to happen), I’m finding myself rethinking the trade offs I made concerning privacy and online anonymity for online convenience (and laziness).

There was a time, when I used to block cookies and obsess over terms of service agreements. Hell, I even used Tor from time to time.

But, after awhile, it just became easier to stop worrying and learn to accept a level of personally sanctioned data breach. But now with all the stories of identity theft, commercialization of your personal info and multi-governmental and corporate sweeps of such data…it’s time for a little reflection…and retreat.

So, I’ve decided to experiment with reducing my digital footprint and I’ll post updates from time to time on how’s it going, in addition to my occasional posts on library projects.

Among my experiments, I’m planning on moving out of Googlelandia as much as possible, starting with changing the default search in my browser and moving back to Firefox. I’ll cover the Firefox post next time, but for now, let’s look at life without Google Search.

Most people online probably don’t remember a world before Google and those that do, don’t want to remember. Needless to say, Google’s initial search algorithm was so good, that it rapidly conquered the search market to the point that Yahoo! handed over its search to Microsoft and the dozens of smaller search engines were quickly forgotten. Anyone remember Web Crawler? Exactly!

Screen Shot 2014-02-13 at 12.52.53 PMAside from Bing (hack!) and the Bing-lite Yahoo! search, there really aren’t many alternatives worth turning to when one needs anonymity. That is, except for DuckDuckGo, a search engine that uses secure HTTPS, does not use cookies by default and generally does not collect any data linked to you (see their privacy statement for more info).

And the search results are not that bad.

But they aren’t great.

Life on DuckDuckGo will be very reminiscent of the best old-school search tools from the pre-Google 90s. Gone will be the kinds of results that require an analysis of your personal search history, online social habits and analysis of your cookies. Often you’ll get exactly what you’re after, but just as often, you’ll get it a few results lower on the page, just below some commercial sites that are using keyword tricks to rise to the top.

For example, I’m thinking about what color scheme I want to go with for my new flat and used DuckDuckGo to find sites that could help me with that. So I did a search for something like: “paint interior design color tools.” The first result led to a 404 page. The second result was not too bad, a Benjamin Moore paint selecting tool for professional painters. Other results were somewhere between these two extremes, with many of them going to pages that were slightly relevant but failed in the “authoritative” category.

Google expends a lot of effort at weeding out, or drowning out, pages with low street cred, and you’ll probably hardly ever get to a 404 page thanks to their very busy and persistent robots. Something else that will be hard to find in Google is nothing. In Google, the dreaded “Sorry. No results were found” message would be an amazing and rare feat of your talents for obscurity. Not so in DuckDuckGo…these come up from time to time.

DuckDuckGo also lacks an image and video search functionality. For this, they provide a dropdown that lets you search via Google or Bing.

I’d also add, that I’m using DuckDuckGo in a Firefox omnibar plugin, so as I type, I get suggested hits. These are also not as accurate or relevant as the Google version, but I’ve also limited it by not preserving any search history in Firefox.

After a few days of trying this out, I do like DuckDuckGo enough to keep using it, but I have had several lapses of risky searches on Google. This is especially true for professional work, where Google knows my work interests quite well and serves up exactly what I need. But for general searches, DuckDuckGo is a good tradeoff for privacy wonks.

Stay tuned for more journeys off the grid including my return to Firefox and experiments with thumb drive applications…

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One thought on “A Technophiles Journey Off the Grid

  1. Pingback: Return to Firefox | Fail!lab

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