Originally posted on washingtonpost.
Moving 15 years of Gmail messages to a smaller email service let me glimpse true tech freedom.
With a few clicks, I moved more than 15 years of email messages from Gmail to Proton Mail, a smaller email provider in Switzerland.
I was surprised how easy it was.
I’m not quitting Gmail. Yet. But this experiment showed me what it could be like if moving our digital lives were as easy as ordering a pizza.
Right now, the relative simplicity of my Gmail-to-Proton transfer isn’t typical.
If you have an iPhone, it’s difficult or impossible to save your photos or backups of what’s on your phone to anything other than Apple’s cloud. On an Android phone, Google will steer you to use Gmail, Google Maps and Google’s cloud. If you want to ditch Spotify or Amazon, you might be reluctant to leave behind your playlists or wishlists.
(Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post. Interim CEO Patty Stonesifer sits on Amazon’s board.)
Corporate tech giants make some great products. But we also have little choice but to stay in a Big Tech marriage, whether we’re in love or not.
I’ll explain how I moved my Gmail messages, why you might want to, and how my email swap was enabled by European bureaucrats who want to make it easier for you to get a Big Tech divorce.
I’m not trying to persuade you to quit Gmail or Apple Photos. But you deserve real freedom to pick up your digital memories and move to something better. And there are too many barriers in your way.
Proton pitches itself as a more secure and private email service. It’s free to start using. Proton offers an “Easy Switch” feature with instructions to move your inbox messages from Google’s Gmail, Yahoo or Microsoft’s Outlook.
There’s not yet an easy way to transfer messages from another email provider, such as Apple or your internet service provider.
I checked a box asking whether I wanted to copy just my Gmail messages or also my Google calendar entries and phone contacts.
Next I entered my Gmail account password. The whole process took me just a few minutes. (Check out the One Tiny Win section below for more detailed instructions.)
After about three hours of Proton processing in the background, my Gmail messages finished flowing into my Proton inbox. The company says this could take up to several days.
The original messages are still in my Gmail. New emails sent to my Gmail address still show up in my Gmail inbox. This gives me a chance to test drive Proton without committing to switching email providers.
Proton said that about 90 percent of new users don’t pull in messages from another service and instead start with an empty inbox.
You know that “free” services have strings attached. Google shows you ads in Gmail based on your online activity when you’re logged into Google. (Gmail no longer scans your inbox to target ads.) It’s also valuable to Google when you’re logged into Gmail and the company knows who you are as you hop around the web.
Proton is one of the few surviving email providers from a relatively small company, and it doesn’t sell ads or make money in other ways from your personal information.
The Google representative also pointed to the company’s work with a tech coalition to make it easier for people to move their data among different services.
Andy Yen, Proton’s CEO, told me that he doesn’t expect you to quit Gmail or whatever email provider you’re using.
Yen imagines Proton as the place for communications that you want to keep private, like those among your friends and family or email related to your finances and health.
Consider carefully before you transfer emails as I did. Proton had a glimpse at my Google account data. I’ve done enough reporting about Proton to trust the company but you definitely shouldn’t trust just any email provider.
Yen said that Google did a rigorous security check before Proton could access a software link to Google account data.
Yen said Proton’s Easy Switch feature was possible because of Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation.
That privacy law is responsible for the constant cookie pop-up messages you see on websites. But GDPR also forced many companies to let you move your data from one digital service to another.
Another European law, the Digital Markets Act, is trying to go even further.
The law may, for example, require Google and Apple to let you more easily back up your phone to Dropbox’s cloud, use Proton Mail when you tap an email address on your phone and pay for apps without using the companies’ official app stores.
Google said Android gives people choices such as switching the built-in keyboard or messaging app and in some cases paying for apps without using a Google account.
It’s not clear yet how Big Tech companies will change their services to comply with the law. Some parts of the DMA might not make sense or withstand legal challenges. But I believe the DMA is an interesting attempt to loosen tech giants’ grip on your life.
I found it eye-opening to use Proton’s email transfer feature. It made me curious how easy it might be to switch out of other digital services I use.
And even if you stick with Gmail, iCloud or Facebook Messenger forever, you want technology companies to feel terrified that you might ditch their products at a moment’s notice. That fear is what keeps innovation alive for you.
But corporate terror is only real if it’s actually easy to switch.