I tried to survive 24 hours without using ‘Big Five’ tech – and my life became impossible

Big Tech
Big Tech

I always get my five a day. Not fruit and vegetables. I mean the “Big Five” technology companies – Alphabet (Google), Amazon, Microsoft, Meta (Facebook) and Apple – which have their fingerprints over almost every aspect of my day-to-day life. And probably yours, too, as their digital infrastructure underpins a significant portion of the internet.

“Easy,” I think, when I decide to embark on a 24-hour Big Tech crash diet. Anyone could avoid Amazon purchases for a single day and switch their smartphone for a flip phone. It’s not like I have to give up all technology, just dodge the Big Five behemoths. I’m wrong, of course – it’s impossible. It only becomes clear how much of a monopoly these companies have on our digital lives when you attempt to circumvent them. I had no idea that the streaming service Netflix, my internet banking, or any of the news websites I visit daily are all hosted by them or use their technology.

To make a point about the tech giants’ monopoly, an American charity called the Economic Security Project created “Big Tech Detective”, a free browser plug-in that allows you to track and avoid all websites that use technology from Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and Google. I start by installing it on my laptop. Its purpose is to allow users to see for themselves just how much of the internet’s infrastructure rests on just four or five companies.

At first, Big Tech Detective works well – so well, in fact, that browsing the internet is almost impossible. In fact, the results are startling. Every website I try to visit for research, by using the search bar in Chrome, with Big Tech Detective installed, is locked because it uses resources provided by either Amazon Web Services (AWS), Google, Facebook or Microsoft. That includes news sites like The Telegraph. I am barred from emails and from Google Docs, the tool I would normally use to write articles.

I chirpily explain to one editor to whom I owe work that I’ve missed her email as I am on a “Big Tech diet” and so can’t access any of the programmes that we use to produce this newspaper. It soon becomes clear that, without Big Tech, it would be completely impossible to do my job – or almost any job that requires email or word-processing software. After a fruitless hour or so of surfing (or attempting to surf) a Big Tech-free web, it has become apparent that the internet really is built on just four or five companies.

Without using Microsoft Word or Google Docs, even writing becomes difficult on a computer
Without using Microsoft Word or Google Docs, even writing becomes difficult on a computer - David Rose/The Telegraph

I am not the first to experiment with going Big Tech-free. In 2019, the tech reporter Kashmir Hill embarked upon a six-week-long mission to eliminate the tech giants from her life and find alternatives. She used a custom-built VPN (virtual private network) to block the Big Tech companies one by one – and found it was impossible.

“Much of the digital world became inaccessible,” she wrote. “I came to think of Amazon and Google as the providers of the very infrastructure of the internet, so embedded in the architecture of the digital world that even their competitors had to rely on their services.” When she blocked Google, the entire internet slowed down, because almost every site relied on Google to track its users or supply its fonts.

Lawmakers are keenly aware of the dominance of the tech giants. This week, the EU launched probes into Apple, Google and Meta under the Digital Markets Act (DMA), landmark legislation that gives the EU licence to rein in Big Tech if it suspects that these companies have an unfair advantage over competitors.

Last year, Brussels designated six companies as “gatekeepers” deserving of extra regulation: Amazon, Alphabet, Apple, Meta, Microsoft and TikTok owner ByteDance. They risk fines of billions of euros if they are found not to be complying with the DMA.

Similarly, there is concern over the dominance of the tech giants in the UK. In October last year, Ofcom referred the public cloud infrastructure services market to the Competition and Markets Authority following an investigation that found the main cloud providers (Amazon and Microsoft, which have a combined 70-80 per cent market share) used features that were limiting competition.

But on with my quest: to continue my mission (I’m in a 5pm-to-5pm window), I switch my SIM card into a retro Nokia 2660 flip phone. This is pleasantly nostalgic for the first five minutes, then it’s very annoying, as it takes me several minutes to painstakingly tap out a short text message. Obviously, my Apple iPhone is out, as are all the apps I use to save time, and to waste time, in my day-to-day life. These include: Google Maps, Gmail, Instagram (which is owned by Meta), Podcasts and, shamefully, Candy Crush.

Abigail is forced to send texts on an old-school Nokia mobile
Abigail is forced to send texts on an old-school Nokia mobile - David Rose/The Telegraph

Uber isn’t owned by one of the Big Five companies, but it uses Google Maps, so that’s out, too. There are non-Big Tech social-media platforms that have cropped up, such as Bluesky, but if none of your friends are on them, they aren’t much fun. Luckily my Nokia has an upgraded version of Snake to keep me occupied on the Tube.

Entertainment options are limited, too: streaming services like Netflix and Disney+ are off limits as both use Amazon cloud technology. As is, obviously, Amazon Prime Video. My new Nokia doesn’t have a touch screen or any “smart” functionality, and I find myself absent-mindedly jabbing it with my finger as it sits dormant on the table, as I would illuminate my iPhone screen to check for WhatsApp messages or breaking news alerts.

The next morning, my usual commute activities of scanning the news, listening to a podcast or to music on Spotify are all outlawed. Spotify, though not technically one of the “Big Tech” five, uses Google cloud software (a running theme). I buy a physical paper to read the headlines using my plastic debit card, which doesn’t get much use nowadays, as I rely on Apple Pay. So far, so good, but I still have to try and get through an analogue working day.

Even if you actively avoid Amazon, Google and Microsoft’s products and services, their technology is still in the DNA of nearly every website on the planet. Amazon is not only responsible for 65 to 70 per cent of online marketplace sales in the US, it is the world’s largest cloud technology provider, with 31 per cent market share. I want to find out what percentage of global search traffic goes through Google, but ironically, I can’t Google it, because I’m banned. (The answer, if you’re interested, is 91 per cent.)

'Hello, is that my editor? I'm afraid I'm going to give you 1200 words, written by hand, in Biro'
'Hello, is that my editor? I'm afraid I'm going to give you 1200 words, written by hand, in Biro' - David Rose/The Telegraph

Technically I’m cheating a bit, because I am trapped in the Apple ecosystem and so also have an Apple computer, without which I would have to write this article by hand. (I tried, but concluded it would take about eight hours to write 1,200 words and I would miss my deadline. Plus, I don’t think my editor would take kindly to me handing it over in a pile of Biro-scribbled notebook pages.)

Given that going on a Big Tech diet makes browsing the web almost impossible, the purpose of Big Tech Detective seems to be to draw attention to the issue rather than to solve it. Even the alternatives rely on the tech giants: ironically, the privacy-focused alternative search engine, DuckDuckGo, is blocked because it uses Google and Microsoft technologies. Out of curiosity, I tried Apple’s website, and found that even it relies on resources from Google.

I’m glad this is only a 24-hour crash course in Big Tech veganism and that I can go straight back to being a carnivore, gorging on the ease of digital dependency. I’m embarrassed to admit that I rush home desperate for the digital riches of my smartphone after just one day without. A life without the tech giants might be possible, but I’m not willing to go off grid.