If there has ever been a year that demonstrates how central the internet is to society, it is 2020. We have relied on the internet this year for work, entertainment, and to keep us close to family. But the freedom and privacy of the internet are under attack. We have seen authoritarian governments around the world, including in Hong Kong, Iran, Belarus, and many other places, increasingly clamp down on internet freedoms to maintain power against the will of their citizens.
We have also seen how Big Tech companies increasingly control every aspect of our lives, from what news we see to which apps we can use. As the recent US and EU antitrust investigations highlight, Big Tech companies use their market dominance to disadvantage competitors and further their control over the internet, putting at risk essential rights, such as privacy, freedom of speech, and democracy. Against this backdrop, the announcement of a Google VPN is even more troubling.
What’s wrong with Google VPN?
VPNs have long been essential online tools that provide security, freedom, and most importantly, privacy. Each day, hundreds of millions of internet users connect to a VPN to prevent their online activities from being tracked and monitored so that they can privately access web resources. In other words, the very purpose of a VPN is to prevent the type of surveillance that Google engages in on a massive and unprecedented scale.
Google knows this, and in their whitepaper discussing VPN by Google One, Google acknowledges that VPN usage is becoming mainstream and that “up to 25% of all internet users accessed a VPN within the last month of 2019.” Increasing VPN usage unfortunately poses a significant problem for Google, by making it more difficult to track users across the internet, mine their data, and target them with advertisements. In short, VPNs undermine Google’s power.
Products like Proton VPN have long been a threat to Google’s business model because we stand for something completely different. Proton believes everyone should have access to privacy, security, and freedom. Our products and business model are centered on the concept of putting privacy first and giving users control over their online data. Whether it’s Proton Mail, Proton VPN, or Proton Drive, our mission has consistently been to prevent Big Tech companies from misusing your most private data for profit.
A Google VPN is a thinly disguised attempt to keep control over user data. By launching Google VPN, bundling it with Google One, and potentially preloading it on every Android device in the future, Google is essentially saying, “Since third-party VPNs prevent us from spying on internet users, we’re going to drive unsuspecting users to Google VPN so we can keep control of their data.” By leveraging its control over the Android platform and bundling Google VPN with other services, Google is leveraging its market dominance to the detriment of internet users, and engaging in the exact sort of behavior which is the subject of antitrust investigations in both the US and EU.
Google’s brazen claim that its VPN will be good for privacy is akin to claiming a Facebook VPN or NSA VPN would be good for privacy. It is imperative that we do not allow Google to redefine privacy as ‘privacy between you and Google.’ This only serves their abusive business model, which profits off surveillance and enables mass manipulation. If we let Google define privacy, everyone loses.
The risks of using a VPN by Google
While no VPN is a perfect privacy solution, there are specific risks to using Google’s VPN in particular.
- Google’s new VPN will increase its ability to collect data on you. Any time you sign in to Google Chrome, Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Maps, or Google Drive, Google already starts tracking you. Any time you sign in to an app that is part of Google’s AdMob platform, it will be able to monitor your activity, and use this to help third parties gain insights to better target you. If that isn’t enough, by using Google’s VPN, you give Google direct access to ALL of your online browsing activity.
- Google is based in the United States, meaning your data is vulnerable to US government surveillance. Google’s VPN is subject to the secretive FISA court and warrantless national security letters. Google is already a tool of surveillance for national governments; giving Google technical access to all your internet activity is a gift to the NSA and other spy agencies around the world. Even if its VPN does not keep user logs now, the US government could compel Google to begin collecting logs in the future.
- With VPN technology, trust is paramount. Yet Google has done nothing to earn your trust. From monitoring users in incognito mode to tracking your location even if you tell it not to, Google has demonstrated repeatedly that it puts profit ahead of user privacy.
The bottom line is that when you connect to a VPN, you are shifting trust from your internet service provider to your VPN provider. If you use Google’s VPN, you are placing your trust in a company whose business model is surveillance.
Don’t fall for privacy theater
This is not the first time Google has tried to assure its users it is concerned for their privacy. Last year, Google CEO Sundar Pichai wrote an op-ed in The New York Times arguing that “privacy should not be a luxury good.” And much like the bad faith arguments presented in that op-ed, Google’s new VPN is nothing more than an attempt to pacify users into a false sense of privacy.
Unfortunately, there is still a large learning curve when it comes to VPNs. Many people don’t know how they work or how they protect privacy. Google appears to be counting on users’ ignorance. Many people may use Google’s VPN thinking they are protecting their privacy, when in reality, it gives Google the ability to collect even more data on them.
But there may be one positive thing about Google’s desperate entry into privacy tech: they know the tide is turning. The demand for privacy is growing, and despite what Google wants, the future will be more private. As internet users, we deserve the right to privacy because it is the foundation for a healthy society and functioning democracy.
Make no mistake, despite what they might claim, Google’s VPN is an attack on internet privacy. What we need is not an internet that puts Google first, but an internet that puts people first, and puts people in control over their data. We can all take a step toward this better internet by saying ‘No’ to Google VPN.
The Proton VPN team
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