( Boston, MA,05/30/14) Andy Yen, cofounder of ProtonMail. (see Jordan Graham story) (Staff photo … [+] by Stuart Cahill) (Photo by Stuart Cahill/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty Images)MediaNews Group via Getty Images
Proton CEO Andy Yen once worked at CERN before deciding to kickstart his encryption-focused company ProtonMail out of beta through a crowdfunding campaign. Since then, ProtonMail has expanded into a variety of privacy-preserving technologies, from rolling out a drive product and calendar product with enough intuitive access features that it could be a very real competitor to Google’s GOOG suite of products — to allowing for organizational control of different emails and releasing its own VPN product.
The company has been renamed to Proton, to adjust for its broader focus on privacy-enhancing tools outside of email. What follows are excerpts from my interview with Andy on his thoughts about encryption, bitcoin — and the enduring importance of privacy. The questions and responses have been excerpted from a larger interview, and written out in a way that is more reader-friendly and focused, though the substance is there: the content of the answers matches almost exactly those in the full interview save a few formatting edits and changing the order of one question.
Proton is structured in an interesting way from ProtonMail to ProtonVPN —what do you see as the full privacy stack of tools which can maximize encryption and minimize surveillance? How do you see Proton interacting with other privacy tools such as bitcoin and Signal?
As a business, we’re shifting from a single privacy product, ProtonMail to Proton as a privacy platform, privacy ecosystem — as a privacy infrastructure for the future. Obviously when you think about privacy online, email is an important part because it is an identity — many people say that it is the only identity that matters today, but it is still limited and that is why we introduced ProtonVPN to allow facility and access to ProtonMail services, that’s why we’re doing a calendar and drive. We’ll be expanding on that ecosystem of course.
The way to really consider this is, in fact, all services that Google offers today are built and designed in a way to maximize the data they can collect in order to sell better advertising. You could take all of those products and services and rebuild them in a way that is centred around making privacy the default and being as private and as secure as possible. In fact, there’s nothing that Google offers that couldn’t be rebuilt in a better way, and that whole ecosystem could in fact be recreated in a privacy-first way.
And what you do see is different companies, different startups starting to pick up different pieces of that. Obviously, we have the email, VPN, file storage and calendar piece that we’re working on. DuckDuckGo is doing that on search. Signal and Telegram are adjusting this when it comes to chat. I think it’s a very healthy and vibrant fact that we have an ecosystem today where there’s many companies in the space, and it becomes increasingly possible to replace more and more pieces of your online life with private versions of [products].
Blockchain is another element there. We’ve been long-time supporters of bitcoin from the very beginning. […] It’s a means of independence. For the space to survive, for privacy to thrive, you need to be able to be independent. You need to be not under the control of let’s say, big tech or even the banking system. This level of independence really needs to be there to be in order for you to really do what is best for users at all times. This is why we also support cryptocurrencies and we support it as a payment method.
I personally would like to see more adoption of cryptocurrencies, because I think that’s something that leads us to a world where things are less centralized. Centralization is a very very big risk because it means a single company can essentially cut you off and kill you. Resilient systems must be decentralized. We are building a platform or an ecosystem, but we are working as much as possible to be part of a broader ecosystem because we know we can’t do it alone.
(Paypal once restricted ProtonMail’s account, with one representative questioning if the service was even legal).
You’ve spoken and written often about the negative effects of big tech monopolies. What are your thoughts on the acquisitions in the space — something I’ve been seeing in the space for example with Zoom acquiring Keybase.
There are acquisitions within the privacy space — the Zoom/Keybase acquisition was a very specific one — it was to try to repair the security and privacy reputation [of Zoom] that took quite a big hit last year. From the perspective of Proton, our business model doesn’t allow us to be acquired by Google and become part of big tech. It simply isn’t possible, it would undermine our value proposition and I think if you are building businesses in privacy that is something to keep in mind.
Very so often, a lot of people start companies solely for the purpose of selling them, and the usual buyers in the past were big tech. That avenue isn’t possible for privacy companies — and I think that is a good thing, because if it were possible, then big tech would just own everything and you would have a competition issue.
What about the pricing (for example app store fees) and talent effects of big tech monopolies?
The things that Apple and Google are doing on the app store clearly are anti-competitive in many ways. You cannot have a fair competition if you are mandated by your competitor to pay them 30% of your revenue. There is no market, historical or future, where fair competition can exist under those circumstances. This should be very obvious […], it’s very obvious to us. It took quite a long time for lawmakers to realize that this is an issue and they’re starting to realize it’s a problem now and that’s why we’re seeing action on both sides of the Atlantic to pursue that.
It’s also very bad for privacy, because if you look at the advertising business model, they don’t charge for their product. The way that they work is that you get the product for free and they’ll monetize you off of your data and using your most intimate and sensitive information to basically sell you ads.
A service like Facebook, honestly, would never have the payback fee — but assume there was a more responsible version of Facebook that was going to subsist off of subscriptions instead of massive data abuse. That service would because of app store policies be put at a competitive disadvantage. They’d have to pay fees that the bad business models don’t have to pay. What the app store fees are essentially doing is strongly favouring ads-based business models which are bad for privacy — and through that way, consumers around the world are harmed as a result of this.
[…]On talent, it’s an interesting question — big tech because of their size sucks up a lot of the talent in the tech sector. But I believe what we’ve been seeing in the last year or last two years has been the rise of employee activism in that employees care of course about making a paycheck […] but there’s also more and more people […] who also care about what they’re doing in their life. […] If you care about those things, and there are bigger and bigger proportion of people these days, especially young people, then you ask yourself the question: do I want to spend my life working at the world’s biggest ad company, and abuse data to optimize ad returns? Or do I actually want to build the Internet of the future that defends democracy, defends human rights and ensures freedom for all?
It has been an interesting year for Proton, which has seen it launch new products, and continue building as part of a privacy ecosystem — a place where parts of the Internet, including cryptocurrencies, Bitcoin and the broader encryption ecosystem are gradually building towards.