The Economic Security Project is trying to make a point about big tech monopolies by releasing a browser plugin that will block any sites that reach out to IP addresses owned by Google, Facebook, Microsoft, or Amazon. The extension is called Big Tech Detective, and after using the internet with it for a day (or, more accurately, trying and failing to use), I’d say it drives home the point that it’s almost impossible to avoid these companies on the modern web, even if you try.
Currently, the app has to be side-loaded onto Chrome, and the Economic Security Project expects that will remain the case. It’s also available to side-load onto Firefox. By default, it just keeps track of how many requests are sent, and to which companies. If you configure the extension to actually block websites, you’ll see a big red popup if the website you’re visiting sends a request to any of the four. That popup will also include a list of all the requests so you can get an idea of what’s being asked for.
It’s worth keeping in mind that just because a site reaches out to one or more of the big four tech companies, it doesn’t mean that it’s necessarily snooping or doing something nefarious. Many websites use fonts from Google Fonts, or host their sites using Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure. That said, there are pages that connect to those IP addresses because they use trackers provided by one of the big four companies. The examples I’m about to list were selected because they’re common sites, not necessarily because they should be shamed.
I saw the popup a lot. DuckDuckGo and Fastmail, popular non-Google alternatives for search and email, were both blocked because they loaded resources from Google, and DuckDuckGo also loaded things from Microsoft (not that this was surprising, given that the search engine’s ads come from it). In fact, almost every search engine I could think of was blocked: Microsoft’s Bing, obviously, but also Yahoo, Startpage, Ecosia, and even Ask.com. The Verge was also blocked, as it loads resources from Amazon, Google, and Facebook.
If I were trying to use the web without being able to connect to IP addresses owned by the big four, it would certainly make my job more difficult: not only could I not easily search for information, basically every news site I could think to try also came up blocked — even the one for my local paper.
If I can’t work, how about some entertainment? That could be tricky too. Google obviously owns YouTube, but Netflix, Hulu, Floatplane, Mangadex, and even Vimeo also all showed the big red lock screen courtesy of the Big Tech Detective extension. It was the same story with online shopping, as Etsy loads resources from all four companies. And if this extension made me want to just ditch the internet and go to the woods? The Hiking Project and AllTrails were also lost to the block.
To try to drive the point home that the takeaway from this extension should be more along the lines of “the entire internet relies on basically four companies” and not “every website is tracking me,” I tried to go to a website that I helped build and that I know isn’t doing anything creepy or even showing ads. It was blocked because it’s hosted on AWS and uses fonts from Google.
Of course, if a browser extension can tell that trackers are present, it’s also possible to block them. There are quite a few extensions available that do so, and I’ve used one called NoScript in the past. However, it is a balancing act between blocking things you don’t want, and also not breaking the site you’re trying to visit — having to deal with broken sites because of super-strict settings was the reason I backed off trying that.
Big Tech Detective isn’t meant to keep your data private from these companies — it even says when it locks one of the pages that it isn’t actually preventing the resources from loading, or collecting your data if that’s their purpose. It’s really meant as a visualization tool to show you that if you want to use the internet without relying on these companies, you’re not going to have a good time. It does, however, let you somewhat recreate the experiment Gizmodo ran where one of its reporters tried to cut out the same four tech companies and Apple — and some technology from that work helps power this extension.
Oh, and if you’re wondering if I found any sites that didn’t get blocked, the answer is yes: somehow, the iCloud site seemed to work fine. However, Apple’s website proper did not — it made requests to Amazon.
It’s possible that the web’s reliance on Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon might change. This hilariously explicit website is always my go-to when I want to remind myself that the modern web is very different from what it used to be.