Degooglifying, step 1: Cleaning up

I’ve been looking to reduce my dependence on Google for a while (see my posts archive on degooglifying), but so far that amounted to figuring out how dependent I was on Android. I’ve now finally started working on actually reducing my Google footprint a bit. Here’s some notes on my process.

My goal isn’t to never again visit a Google website or service, but I will be happy if they end up collecting less information about me, whether through Analytics (which I already block), Gmail, or Maps.

Steps so far were: take stock (I am unorganized, so by far most important), delete stuff I no longer use, and start archiving things in my actual archives rather than haphazardly in various Google services, particularly Gmail.

Take stock

I find it really hard to delete or get rid of stuff when I am not exactly sure what it is, what it contains, and whether I need it. Because of this I will never be able to wholesale delete a directory without looking inside, or quit a web service without checking that I have exported everything I could possibly need. To that end, the first things I’ve done are figuring out what I actually had in Google.

To Google’s credit, Google Takeout, their export service is fairly great. I requested a full archive and received it in a few hours. It added up to 5.5 GB and was organized into directories that immediately told me what I had. I backed up the Takeout locally before doing any cleaning out, to keep as reference and in case I delete something I didn’t mean to.

Pro tip #1: The full Takeout includes videos I’ve uploaded to Youtube. I happen to have copies of these on my hard drive. If you’re in a similar situation, I would suggest unchecking Youtube videos in Takeout to not waste time redownloading them. It also includes all photos from Google Photos, which if you’re smartphone-trigger-happy might be several gigabytes. If you have an independent backup of photos from your phone, you might want to initially exclude Photos too.

Pro tip #2: The bottom of left-hand column on current Google Drive homepage has a meter of roughly how much space you’re using and how it breaks down. However, this doesn’t include things like Keep or Contacts.

Disable some of the Google cloud in Android

In the stock Android 6 on my Nexus 5, many Google apps cannot be uninstalled, but they can be “disabled”, which hides them from the app list (and perhaps prevents them from running in background). I disabled Google Maps and Google Keep, to quit them cold turkey and see how much I would miss them. I didn’t end up missing them that much.

I switched to using pen and scrap paper for grocery lists and packing lists, which were most of my Keep usage. Paper has pretty fantastic user experience: the resolution is great, it can be read without a battery, and you can mark up your notes very easily.

I went through the few points of interest I had starred in Google Maps, checked if I still needed them starred, and if so, transferred ones that are included in OpenStreetMap to bookmarks instead. (The bookmarks in app can be exported straight to a KML file.)

Apps using a Google Maps service to display a map in their own app (e.g. Citymapper) continued to work, which I take to mean I haven’t fully excised Maps from my phone. But the disabling was as much about changing my habits as anything else, and at that it succeeded.

(For those keeping track at home, comparing with my Android app list would leave Calendar, Hangouts, Gmail, Contacts, Google app, and Authenticator on my phone. Spoiler: last week, I dropped my Nexus 5 and broke the touchscreen digitizer, so strictly speaking I don’t currently use any Google cloud apps on Android.)

Clean out dead stuff

Specifically Google+. I was no longer using Google+ and my “circles” of about 60 people had no interesting activity in years. Contacts in Google+ circles get sort-of integrated with your Google Contacts, but I didn’t want to depend on Google+ anymore. I went through my Google+ circles and unfollowed everyone, cross-checking with Google Contacts and upgrading people I wanted to keep to full Contacts, including manually copying in data where needed.

Export stuff into my own archives

Google has become very proficient at making Magic Web Storage a thing. Unfortunately in my case this meant that I kept random old crap in there, without keeping track of where and how and whether I needed it.

  1. I emptied out Google Photos. It was mostly backups of photos from my old phone, which I had already offloaded from the phone and backed up. I had stopped using the auto-backup sometime in 2014, so there wasn’t that much stuff there, thankfully.
  2. I organized notes in Keep, copying out data I wanted to keep to my personal MediaWiki installation and deleting some unneeded data. This was mostly packing lists and old to-do lists.
  3. I exported data from Google Drive: deleted documents if already backed up not-on-Drive, exported and archived those that were only in Drive. Luckily I had only about 30-40 documents, many of them from my university days around 2008-2010 that somehow ended up in Drive (misclicked “save to Drive” perhaps?). The Drive homepage also includes created custom Google Maps (essentially KML/GeoJSON files), which I have backed up and plan to host on my own website.
  4. I started to clean out Gmail, focusing on big messages first. Sending files through email was and remains useful to avoid faffing around with USB drives, but I usually had copies of these files on my drive. Searching “size:10000000” (that’s about 10 MB) in the Gmail search box is a great start. For contacts that you know sent or received big or sensitive attachments, their email address followed by “has:attachment” is helpful too.

    Unfortunately Gmail has no way to delete attachments without deleting the whole email, though there’s workarounds involving using a full-blown IMAP client. However, you can delete a single message within a longer thread. I didn’t have a lot of messages that included both big files and important text, and I’ve decided that if the text was quoted later, I am okay with deleting the big message.

    Gmail straight-up refused to let me download some old attachments, insisting they contained viruses. They did not, they were password-protected 7zip archives of JPEG images. Rude. I resolved this by downloading the email source and decoding it with this script by Stefan Sundin which is based on this one by Serafeim Papastefanos.

    This is also a good time to scrub anything you don’t really want on the internet from your inbox (e.g. scans of passports or SIN cards), although going through and finding them all is quite time-consuming.

    My Gmail inbox started at around 2.2 GB in mid-November (by Gmail’s own count at the bottom of desktop version pages) and went down to 1.8 GB by late November and 1.6 GB today. So a pretty solid reduction, considering that I’ve only deleted stuff I genuinely don’t need.

Detach from Android

I had used Google Authenticator for two-factor log in. This worked great until my phone broke and rendered me unable to use the app. For now I switched the accounts I had using Authenticator to SMS as the second factor. I can always move my SIM to another device to receive the text (it’s currently in my old Nexus One). I am not yet sure what the security implications are exactly, but I don’t think rogue parties intercepting SMS or stealing my SIM card is a huge risk at my exposure level.


There’s still a fair bit I want to do.

  1. Clean out remaining things in Keep – there’s still some assorted lists and research notes that would be better hosted elsewhere.
  2. Check Gmail for more unnecessary big or just plain unnecessary email. The lure of the “Archive” button has worked on me for quite some time so I have a lot of old newsletters and other stuff I don’t really need. By Gmail’s count I have over 9000 messages in my inbox and 22 000 in “all mail”. At this scale I’m mostly depending on search, though I’ve also gone to a specific date (search “before:2009-08-19”) and look for categories of emails that could be deleted.
  3. Clean out remaining starred/saved places in Maps. These are mostly places that are not yet mapped in OpenStreetMap. As they are all Berlin shops I had saved intending to visit them, I will visit them then add the information to OSM.
  4. Self-host my custom-created maps (lists of places in Vancouver, London, etc) instead of depending on Google Maps. I’ve started doing this but it is super hacky for now and needs to be improved and contain more maps. I plan on keeping the ones in Maps up for now, but won’t have to link to them anymore.
  5. Migrate email away from Gmail. My current setup is slightly hacky since my main mailbox on my own domain just forwards things into Gmail. I would like to have my email done properly, and supported by either myself or people who are getting paid to support email. I have looked into self-hosting, but I’ve looked at this for several years and it has yet to happen. I am currently leaning towards Fastmail, which is independent and makes email their job. Comments welcome.
  6. When I migrate out of Gmail, export the contacts I have in Google Contacts/Gmail. I don’t have a lot and they don’t change often, so it’s probably sufficient to import them manually from a VCF file.
  7. Do something about Calendar. If I move to Fastmail, they provide calendaring and I should be able to import my Google Calendar archives. But I’ll see if I want to do that.
  8. Find another way to talk with the four people I talk to on Hangouts. I have it linked using bitlbee to an IRC server, but since I only talk to four people it might be easier to switch to something else.
  9. Google+ posts: I think some of them have been sort of deleted when I deleted associated pictures in Photos… not sure. I will probably keep whatever is remaining, for the sake of cool URIs don’t changing more than anything else, at least until Google kills off Google+ in another spring cleaning. There wasn’t anything really groundbreaking in there, if I find anything I will integrate it into my own blog posts.