Proton CEO Andy Yen: Break Up Big Tech To Save Democracy | Time

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andy yen is the founder and CEO of proton, the company behind the protonmail encrypted email service and a host of other privacy-focused products that threaten to upend the data-centric big tech industry . Proton’s VPN service is currently one of the most widely used privacy tools in Russia, helping millions of Russians evade Kremlin censorship amid the war in Ukraine. Here, in an extended interview excerpt from a profile posted earlier this month in The Time, staff writer Billy Perrigo talks with Yen about the rise of encrypted technology and what it means for the antitrust fight against the likes of google and facebook, and the future of the internet.

This interview has been summarized and edited for clarity.

For the average user, who may be unclear on the difference between protonmail and gmail, can you explain how protonmail is different?

google is an advertising company, fundamentally. You like to think you’re a Google customer, but you’re not really a Google customer. what you are is the product you are selling to your real customers, who are the advertisers. proton is a different model. because our clients are the users, and we are here to serve the users.

the challenge that google will always face is that they are essentially selling information about you to advertisers, they are incentivized to violate your privacy to the fullest extent permitted by law and user tolerance to extract maximum value. of your data. our model is actually to protect your privacy as much as possible, because that’s why our clients pay us. and I believe that the direct relationship allows a better alignment of interests between us as a company and what our clients really want.

read more: the executive director of proton wanted to fight against dictatorships. he now he is also fighting big technology

There have been several recent high-profile incidents of hacked web services. And one school of thought is that Google has teams of thousands of cybersecurity experts, and they can quickly patch a vulnerability after they find it. they have the ability to act much faster than a smaller company like yours. Does that make them safer?

The best way to protect data is to not have it in the first place. So if we don’t have access to user data, if we don’t collect and categorize their most sensitive information, it’s not really possible for an attacker to steal something from proton that we don’t own. so a very good angle of protection is privacy first. because that is structurally safer. and using end-to-end encryption everywhere helps with that.

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I don’t think security is a function of the size of a company or how much money it has. security is really your culture, your ethics, the way you build software. and what you put first. what many people may not understand is that privacy and security are actually two sides of the same coin. if you build something that is inherently private, it also tends to be more secure.

you are from taiwan. can you explain how that influenced your approach to leading the proton?

Coming from Taiwan, you are, in many ways, on the front lines of the battle between democracy and freedom. in hong kong, which is culturally and geographically very close, we saw how in a very short time any semblance of freedom of expression, of privacy, true, disappeared. and you saw that once you lost privacy, when you lost freedom of expression, you lost democracy, you lost freedom. so of course being from taiwan informs your worldview and your opinion and i think the reason why i created proton, and the reason why i’m deeply committed to our mission, is because there’s a direct link between what what we do and what we do I see, how to guarantee that democracy and freedom can survive in the 21st century.

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proton recently lent its support to two antitrust bills in the us. uu. congress. can you explain why?

For a long time, people considered antitrust and privacy as separate issues. and what is becoming increasingly clear is that these are actually a problem. today, if you go out and ask the average consumer, do you trust google? do you trust facebook? Do they feel their data is adequately protected? do they feel they have the right amount of privacy online? the answer is no. people always want more security and privacy. One of the reasons privacy doesn’t exist much online today is because there is no competition. It doesn’t really matter how many privacy scandals Facebook has, right? At the end of the day, where else are you going to go? Who else are you going to get your services from? The FTC argued very strongly and correctly, in my opinion, that once there was a lack of competition in this space, once Facebook properly bought out all of its competitors, it no longer needed to put an emphasis on privacy, because it didn’t matter. .

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what we know is that when there is more competition, consumers always win. and I think if we’re able to get more competition within the tech space, consumers all over the world are going to see more privacy, because all of a sudden, by making it easier for companies like proton to compete on an equal footing with google and other companies, google is going to have to respond and provide more privacy to stay competitive.

I want to refer to russia and the global instability that we are witnessing. what role do you think your products will play in cases like the russian invasion of ukraine, but also in the mass protests in hong kong?

so in russia, we have seen a 1000% increase in the number of proton vpn users. But Russia is not an isolated case. it’s not even that unique. If you zoom out and look at just the last 12 months, Russia is probably one of maybe two dozen cases around the world. We have seen a high demand for proton vpn and protonmail, because these are the services that allow a free flow of information. today, if you want to find the truth in russia, you need to use a vpn. If you want to communicate securely, you should probably use a service like Protonmail. and that’s just the reality. I think this is really a reflection that today, if you look at the world population as a whole, 70% of the people alive on earth today live in a dictatorship. that’s a mind-boggling statistic that has actually increased quite a bit over the last two decades. I believe that the development, proliferation and also the widespread accessibility of services like proton, with the values ​​that we are promoting and helping to defend in an increasingly digitized world, will be the key to reversing that trend.

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There has been a lot of talk online recently about this new vision of the internet with web3. what do you think about that? And to what extent do you see it as a viable vision for the future of the internet?

I see it from a scientific point of view. You do a lot of experiments. they are not always successful. Is that the model of the future? will that work? too soon to tell. But just because it exists doesn’t mean it’s going to be successful. the web is full of examples of things we thought were going to be the future of the internet that turned out not to be the future of the internet.

The way I think you should look at the future is to go back to the fundamental problems and the fundamental needs, and whether these solutions are the best way to solve them or not. If I look at Proton, for example, the fundamental need that we’re solving is privacy. and is privacy a fundamental need? well, I think it is, I think it’s part of being human.

so I can assume you won’t be integrating blockchain into any of your projects anytime soon?

well, we would only do it if it was the best way to solve the real need of the user. and what I have seen in many blockchain projects is that it is often not the best way to solve the real need of the user.

write to billy perrigo at billy.perrigo@time.com.

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