Privacy and technology journalist Kashimir Hill is in the middle of publishing a fascinating series of articles called “Goodbye to the Big Five,” in which she reports on her experiences trying to function on the internet without the products or services of Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Apple. To do so, she uses a custom-built virtual private network created by activist and technologist Dhruv Mehrotra.
The VPN completely blocks her access to the millions of IP addresses controlled by these companies. This has a much more extensive impact on online life than simply abandoning their branded products. In the case of cutting off Google access, for example, ride hailing apps like Lyft and Uber become useless, because both apps depend on Google Maps. Spotify’s music is hosted in Google Cloud, so it too becomes inoperable. And even seemingly independent sites like The New York Times are affected; because each page on the site tries to download Google Analytics, Google Pay, Google News, Google ads, and Doubleclick, the experience is slowed down considerably.
Particularly notable for design audiences is the proliferation of Google Fonts use across the web.
Many of the sites I visit want to load Google fonts—a free, open-source resource the company released in 2010—which are downloaded from Google’s servers and then cached in the browser. Having quick access to a variety of fonts that would not otherwise be available on your computer generally helps sites load faster, but it has the opposite effect for me during the block.
Given that Google has so many ways to track people’s digital activity already, I’m disturbed to see how ubiquitous the use of Google fonts is on the web, but the company has promised that it won’t use them to track a site’s users. So there’s that.
To Google’s credit, they don’t seem to be exploiting this situation. Hill also writes:
‘Of all the shady shit Google does, this one doesn’t seem that shady,’ says Dhruv, when I consult him about it.
Shady or not, it’s eye-opening to realize how broadly influential Google is in the user experience of the internet. Google Fonts is hardly an insubstantial product, but relative to its other pursuits, it barely seems like it takes much effort from the company. And yet in less than a decade it has turned into one of the most important providers of type in the world. (Full disclosure: this site uses Libre Baskerville served from Google Fonts.) The fact that the company has operated the service with a relatively neutral hand is commendable, but who’s to say how long that will last? The implications for the design world are far reaching if Google ever decides to turn its Fonts service into a revenue bearing business.
Read the first several installments in Hill’s series at gizmodo.com.