Privacy has become a precious commodity. It is often at odds with the pervasive nature of surveillance. Tech giants and governments alike have harnessed the power of technology to gain unprecedented access to personal data, raising concerns about individual privacy and the health of democratic societies. To examine this complex issue, I sat down with Andy Yen, the Co-founder and CEO of Proton, a privacy-focused company behind Proton Mail, to discuss the implications of the surveillance society and the urgent need for safeguarding user privacy.
The Pervasive Nature of Surveillance
Shoshana Zuboff’s seminal work on the surveillance economy has shed light on the concerning realities of the digital landscape. Yen emphasized the rapid advancement of technology has made data surveillance more pervasive than ever before. Governments and Big Tech’s unfettered access to personal data, is eroding individual privacy and threatening the very fabric of democratic societies. As per Yen,
“I think the Internet today has a vision that’s been dominated by companies like Google and Facebook. And their philosophy is simply that the way the Internet should work should be, ‘we give you services for free and you give, in exchange, your most valuable, intimate private information, which we are going to use however we see fit to make the maximum amount of money. I think that model works great for them. They have trillion-dollar market caps as a result, right? But it’s, to put it bluntly, a bad deal for everyone else in the world.”
In the past year, Yen has been deeply involved in antitrust discussions, lending Proton’s support to two antitrust bills in the U.S. Congress. He argues how current monopolies stifle innovation and why it’s vital we continue to push for increased competition in the tech space.
“When Google has the authority to determine how your services are discovered, distributed, and provided on various platforms, there’s little recourse if they decide to act unfairly. For instance, Google could arbitrarily remove any application from the Play Store, effectively cutting off access to Android devices. Unfortunately, there are no legal measures to prevent such actions, leaving them with unchecked control. However, given that Android commands a substantial market share of around 67% to 80%, it becomes apparent that this level of scale requires appropriate rules and regulations to create a fair playing field for all competitors. This is why we strongly advocate for policies that promote competition because, without it, addressing the privacy problem becomes insurmountable.”
How does Proton do this differently? Yen emphasizes they are not a data-driven company. Proton’s mission is rooted in creating a different social contract for Interet users. Instead of subscribing to the status quo, where users relinquish their most intimate data in exchange for free services, Proton Mail upholds a model that respects user privacy and his/her ownership of their information.
While the prevailing narrative might suggest that users must accept the pervasive surveillance as the cost of free internet services, Yen offers a counterargument. Proton’s freemium business model allows 99% of users to access their services without paying. However, the remaining 1% bear the cost of this privacy-centric approach.
As per Yen, “We’re not going to abuse the use of that data, and we enforce that through end-to-end encryption. It’s not just a promise, but it’s a mathematical guarantee.”
For the Google user, they are paying by providing this behemoth with what Yen alludes to as “more intimate, more sensitive – something you cannot take back.”
What persists today are countless examples of unchecked surveillance like the warrantless pole camera surveillance program employed by some police departments. By installing cameras on poles in neighborhoods, authorities can monitor citizens without their knowledge or consent. This infringement on privacy directly challenges the Fourth Amendment rights of individuals. Additionally, companies like Flock utilize mass surveillance license plate readers, enabling them to collect vast amounts of information without seeking consent.
Yen acknowledged these examples offer compelling evidence of the pervasive nature of surveillance today. “Looking back at history, East Germany serves as a chilling reminder of how one-sixth of the population was employed to conduct surveillance on the other five-sixths, employing human methods. However, what makes the current situation even more disconcerting is that technological advancements have rendered such approaches unnecessary. With the rise of tech giants like Google and Facebook, surveillance capabilities have reached unprecedented levels at a fraction of the cost and effort.”
Drawing a stark contrast, he expressed the startling realization that Google, with its vast resources and data-driven models, potentially knows more about the average individual than the notorious Stasi knew about the average East German citizen. Yen remarks, “We find ourselves in an ecosystem where surveillance is more widespread than ever in human history, posing significant implications for personal privacy and democracy.”
Yen notes the question then arises: “What can we do to address this escalating concern? While taking legal action and fighting in courts is vital, the scale of the challenge demands a broader response.”
The Role of Competition and Regulation
Organizations like the ACLU play a crucial role in raising awareness and advocating for change, but he contends legal battles alone are insufficient; the core issue lies in business models that prioritize surveillance capitalism over privacy-centric practices.
In a capitalist society, businesses are driven by financial incentives. As per Yen, “And if the financial incentives are aligned towards surveillance capitalism and abusing privacy, in the meantime, then it’s difficult to change that system.”
Yen sheds light on the challenges faced by privacy-focused companies like Proton in the case of Apple and its App Store. While Apple promotes itself as a champion of privacy, it also wields significant control over app distribution on iOS devices through its App Store, effectively monopolizing the ecosystem. This control extends to App Store policies, where a crucial aspect lies in the revenue-sharing arrangement for subscription-based services.
For companies like Proton, which prioritize user privacy and refrains from relying on invasive advertising models, the burden of the App Store’s policies can be substantial. Yen argues, “To operate on iOS devices, Proton is required to relinquish 30% of its revenue to Apple, not from profits or margins, but from the top-line revenue. In stark contrast, tech giants like Facebook, which monetize user data through advertising and engage in surveillance capitalism, pay zero fees for their billion or trillion-dollar applications in the App Store.”
Yen denounces the uneven playing field that leaves app developers with a difficult choice: “So if you’re an app developer anywhere in the world seeking to build an application in the App Store or even the Play Store, because Google’s policies are the same–and you’re confronted with the choice. I can either give 30% of my revenue to these tech giants, or I can abuse user data and give up nothing.”
To address this, Yen suggested implementing policies that prohibit discriminatory practices, such as the 30% fees imposed by Apple and Google, which would then trigger a significant structural change. By leveling the playing field, such policies can fuel the growth of privacy-centric services like Proton, ensuring they can survive and even thrive. Yen suggests the need to create the right financial incentives, “because financial incentives are what makes market economies and capitalism work. It is the government’s role to regulate and protect society from outcomes that are not good for the collective.”
Preserving Privacy in Increasingly Evolving AI Landscape
The advent of generative (AI) brings both promise and peril for privacy as we’ve witnessed the technology’s hiccups in recent months. AI’s potential for disruption raises hopes of challenging the dominance of tech giants.
Yen highlights its disruptive potential of artificial intelligence and how it could further consolidate the power of big tech companies, especially those with massive data like Google. He believes that while some may see AI as a chance for disruption, it could actually entrench the status quo, raising concerns. However, he remains relatively positive about the potential for government action in regulating AI,
“As I look at regulatory landscape, a notable contrast arises when considering the prolonged absence of regulations governing marketplaces like app stores, which have endured for two decades without comprehensive oversight. In comparison, the arrival of Generative AI, which has only recently surfaced on the public stage, has lay witness to governments taking prompt action. This swift response suggests a more promising trajectory for regulatory efforts, offering hope in how we address the ramifications of AI’s influence.”
Safeguarding Online Freedoms in Regions of Censorship
Yen’s vision to protect privacy rights extends to their VPN Services, which are vital services in regions where access to information may be constrained and where free speech is an aberration.
“Privacy is often taken for granted in Europe, Canada, and the United States, where we enjoy certain freedoms. However, over 70% of the world’s population lives under non-free regimes, and this number is increasing. VPNs play a crucial role and during the war in Ukraine, Russia curtailed Internet access, suppressing free speech and dissent. In Russia and Iran, VPNs became the only means for people to access the truth and unbiased information from the outside world. Millions of users turned to Proton VPN during these times to bypass censorship and access what was happening globally. This is essential as it enables people to receive accurate information, facilitating change from within and being able to countering state propaganda.”
Investing in VPN services aligns with Proton’s mission of safeguarding human rights. Yen admits they are a small player, up against an entire state apparatus, “So it’s not really a fair fight, but I think it’s a fight that’s essential to win. Whenever democracy is under threat in any part of the world, we observe a rise in VPN usage. This correlation proves that privacy and online freedom are central to safeguarding democracy in the 21st century.”
Proton’s Commitment to the Global Fight for Privacy
Proton’s impact stretches far beyond the digital realm, reaching regions where privacy is a matter of life and liberty. In countries like Russia and Iran, where governments tightly control information flow, Proton’s VPN service has become a lifeline for citizens seeking access to uncensored information. The VPN offers a window to the free internet, allowing people to remain informed amidst government-imposed silencing.
Despite the daunting challenges, Proton remains committed to preserving privacy and promoting online freedom. As a small company taking on powerful adversaries, in government and in tech, the battle is one of utmost significance.