The consumption of the Internet through certain platforms has made the user gradually take on the role of no longer a simple consumer, but a source of supply of raw materials: the user provides his personal data (nationality, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation , political opinions. ) and behavior (at what time he is most likely to make such a purchase, how much he can be influenced to vote for such and such a candidate, etc.) into a system that converts all this data in time real in sources of profit.
Platforms through their architectures and technological infrastructures channel, organize, distribute and articulate the content with which users interact, sometimes even inferring and deducing our thoughts, intentions and interests by developing predictive targeting algorithms in the service of their customers: advertisers. These practices sometimes hinder the user’s right to decide, to make informed choices and with full awareness of the influences exerted by third parties, but also the right of withdrawal, correction, oblivion.
“Our online data is more than just a string of 1s and 0s. It contains our lives, our stories, our friends, our families, our hopes and aspirations”announced Andy Yen, founder of Proton, in a TED talk.
Thus Proton was born with the ambition to create an internet that puts people before profits, a world where everyone is in control of their digital lives through zero-access encryption that guarantees data will not be breached. personal information from no one, not even from Proton itself: “If one day we wanted for some absurd reason to approach Google’s business model, technically we can’t because our products are built using encryption that makes it impossible for us to access users’ personal data.”
More than 70 million records
Thanks to more than 70 million registrations, among which several percent of the global user base subscribes to a premium subscription, the company is profitable and can actively recruit. Now it has a staff of more than 400 people. Indeed, since its inception in 2014, Proton has been funded solely through its users’ subscriptions. Unlike traditional platforms where the customers are advertisers, Proton’s only customer is its users. Thus, the financial interests of the company are aligned with those of the users, and every decision made should be beneficial to them.
Whether the notion of free has long been debated in relation to traditional platforms “If it’s free, you are the product”, it is interesting to note the growing interest of individuals to pay a price to change the trend and exercise their right to privacy online. It was a real bet for the company, which, by launching its premium offering in 2016, drew the outlines of a sustainable business model that could scale up.
Proton’s customers are mainly individual users (90%). The remaining 10% are SMEs and large companies, but also governmental and non-governmental organizations. A recent LINC survey, the predictive laboratory of the CNIL, demonstrates social and gender inequality in claiming one’s rights to privacy. Proton recognizes that maintaining one’s privacy is based on a disparity of knowledge necessary for an awareness of one’s rights. “Mark Zuckerberg, the founder-CEO of Meta, for example, bought houses around his main house to strengthen the basic good that is his private life.”.
“We believe that privacy should be accessible to everyone”
The financial barrier can widen the inequality of access to online privacy, which is why Proton wants to minimize this gap through its freemium offering: “We believe that privacy should be accessible to everyone”says Andy Yen.
One of Proton’s philosophies is to be a product that, despite the high degree of technical encryption sophistication, remains ergonomically easy to use. “We are guided in designing our products by wanting to target people who are not tech savvy, I want my mother and grandmother to be able to use my products easily”. Their ambition is to expand their product diversification to everyone “services provided by Google” that can be secured and further conceptualized around a privacy-friendly design. The products currently offered by Proton are: Proton Mail, Proton Calendar, Proton Drive, Proton VPN.
Greater security in the management of personal data goes hand in hand with greater vigilance in respecting the user’s compliance with the general conditions in accordance with Swiss business law: “If actions are carried out without legal basis and expressly prohibited by the T&C, Proton is free to suspend or block an account” to ensure the proper functioning of the platform.
Paradoxically, the more a system is protected by encryption rules, the less it is possible to detect illegal activities taking place on it. However, Andy Yen clearly arbitrates: “Between more or less total surveillance and the decline in the ability to detect illegal activities by strengthening security, especially against cyber attacks, we prefer the second scenario for the preservation of our democracy. Pragmatically, it is impossible to ensure that 100% of the activities that take place on our platform are legal, but we minimize as much as possible the manipulation of our products for illegal and malicious purposes”.
Raising awareness among young people about confidentiality issues
Proton also wants to make young people aware of surveillance issues and provide them with email addresses that are more suitable for privacy issues. “Email is now a passport that may be more necessary than your real passport. You start your digital life as a young teenager with an email address that you may never end up changing.. It is one of Proton’s next priorities to provide young people with a safe alternative for their entire digital life.
Unlike American or Russian legislation, where companies (Signal and Telegram) are based that also use encryption technology, European legislation with GDPR or the Digital Markets Act are fertile ground for Proton and the expansion of its various markets. They inspire a leading European vision for privacy protection and provide important guarantees for more balanced competition, especially against new entrants. Lawmaking is also an option for Proton, which in October 2021 won an appeal against the Swiss Postal and Telecommunications Supervisory Service (SSPT) regarding the status and traffic monitoring obligations imposed on the company.
In direct compliance with the provisions of the Digital Services Act, Proton makes the source codes of its applications open source. The security of Proton software is checked regularly and by independent experts: “This allows our customers to verify that our encryption practices work as well as advertised. We want to be a company whose goodwill is based on transparency and openness.”
Proton gained SimpleLogin in April 2022, a French startup to help develop its privacy ecosystem. Proton already has a number of French employees and is actively recruiting for many more positions, creating new jobs in line with its continued commitment and ambition in the French market.