In my time as a tech journalist, one relentless upward trend has deeply troubled me — the relentless erosion of privacy.
Despite valiant efforts by passionate activists, consumer rights bodies, and a subset of committed lawmakers, data privacy is often surrendered for convenience, connection (seriously?!), or access to free products and services. In other instances, its absence is obscured by fine print.
Proton is a company that's consistently bucked the trend, showing that there's another way forward.
It was founded in 2014 by a group of scientists who met at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Switzerland and decided to build an internet where privacy is the default.
Proton's first product was ProtonMail, an end-to-end encrypted email service which uses client-side encryption to protect email content and user data before they are sent to Proton Mail servers, unlike other common email providers such as Gmail and Outlook.com.
The company also operates Proton VPN, Proton Drive. Proton Pass (open source and encrypted password manager) and Proton Calendar. It has over 70 million users.
I sat down with CEO and co-founder Andy Yen to talk about all things privacy.
Over the years, we've seen a lot of different attempts to deal with digital and data privacy on the web, from Tor to GDPR to Solid as well as various efforts to let people' control' and monetise their browsing history.
The desire for greater privacy online is growing. Recent research Proton did with YouGov shows that 77% of people in the UK are concerned about their data privacy online.
"When I speak to people and ask whether they want more privacy, or less, no-one says they want less."
The flipside of privacy is competition
Yen asserts that Big Tech companies can only get away with privacy abuses because they dominate the internet.
Proton is actively involved in the push for competitive digital markets. Digital markets where incumbent companies already benefit from large user bases are extremely hard to challenge due to the so-called "network effect", even when other companies and startups conceive better, more innovative products.
Gatekeepers build closed ecosystems — through a lack of interoperability, and then use bundling and self-preferencing to expand them into other products and services.
As Yen notes: "True privacy is not, as Big Tech claims, when 'no one can abuse your data but us'. True privacy is when no one can abuse your privacy, full stop."
"Not only that, but Big Tech leads to customers locked into vendors, also boxing smaller developers out, by buying out startups before they can challenge their position, spending millions lobbying lawmakers, and using their control of key internet infrastructure to hobble competitors.
All this means that users have no choice but to give in to Big Tech's definition of privacy or disconnect from the modern world.
It's not a level playing field. That's why we're trying to change the status quo, and we have been working on antitrust reforms on both sides of the Atlantic."
Can legislation lead to a truly competitive market?
The Digital Markets Act (DMA) in the EU was enacted in 2022 to regulate digital market competition. It aims to prevent tech giants such as Meta, Amazon, Apple, and Google from cornering the market of a specific product or service, allowing smaller companies such as startups to compete against them.Yen sees more competition as "a win for consumers, a win for small businesses, a win for employment, and a win for the economy."
"The only people that lose are Big Tech."
The fight for fairer digital markets
In 2022, Proton founded the Coalition for Competitive Digital Markets together with Open Xchange and Element. The goal is to represent the unrepresented and ensure that the smaller companies have a voice in the fight for fairer digital markets.
The Coalition now represents over 50 companies from 16 countries that would otherwise not have a voice in Brussels. It also works with the European Digital SME Alliance, a business association of more than 45,000 digital SMEs.
The Coalition pushes for stronger interoperability provisions as part of the Digital Markets Act (DMA) that can give smaller companies a chance to compete and grow.
"Now the DMA has passed, the key issues will be the implementation and ensuring that big tech doesn't try to circumvent their obligations.
We will be working with our colleagues in the Coalition to push for implementing the rules that properly reflects the original intention of the DMA."
He cites the new Digital Markets, Competition and Consumer Bill in the UK as another promising piece of antitrust legislation.
VPN Observatory shows Proton's commitment to a free and open internet
Over the last few years, we've seen internet shutdowns as an attempt by governments to control the flow of local free information. Just in the first half of 2023, the internet was shut down at periods in 29 countries, including Russia, Iran, Ethiopia, and Türkiye.
VPNs are essential tools to combat internet censorship. Proton VPN regularly sees signups spike following major geopolitical events around the world, such as protests, contested elections, or government crackdowns. In response, Proton has launched VPN Observatory to track internet shutdowns.
It's a mission-driven effort that shows how Proton has stayed true to its roots as the company has grown from 4 people in a cafeteria to a team of 400 across eight global offices.
Yen shared that "having a clear mission really helps bring people along on the journey – and it's making sure that people feel part of the journey that's critical to maintaining a strong culture as you scale."
"At Proton, our founding mission is to create a better internet where privacy is the default.
That flows through everything we have done since founding the business and ensures the whole team is working towards the same end goal. Our commitment to our community flows through every decision we make – from which products to develop to how we market and talk about our services."
It's easy to forget that Proton started with a crowdfunding campaign in 2014, and today Proton has no VC investors.
"This was only possible because we monetised and became profitable early by focusing on subscriptions as a business model.
That has allowed us to act independently, keep hiring even through downturns, invest in R&D as well as expand our product line while some other companies that were overly reliant on annual funding rounds have had to cut back."
He notes that until fairly recently, capital has been very readily available, and companies have relied heavily on it to scale.
"But market conditions are very different now, and tech businesses will have to look at new ways of scaling that are more sustainable. Finding revenue streams early is critical."
When I interview industry leaders, I often ask them what startups are on their radar. Yen rates the work of Ecosia is "really admirable".
"A business that is not only safeguarding people's privacy online – by not creating profiles of their users to sell to advertisers — but also committing their profits to protecting forests and climate."