Andy Yen isn’t someone you’d expect to be confrontational. The 33-year old is exactly what you’d expect from a former nuclear research physicist who started the end-to-end encrypted email service, ProtonMail–which has doubled in size since 2019.
But when I asked him about Apple’s frequent claim that it believes privacy to be a fundamental human right, Yen pulled no punches. “What they believe in more than privacy is profit,” Yen told me during a conversation at WebSummit this week.
To be fair, privacy isn’t the main problem Yen’s company has with Apple. ProtonMail is a co-founder of the Coalition for App Fairness, a group that also includes Epic Games and Spotify. The coalition was started a little over a year ago, shortly after Epic Games sued Apple over its App Store rules that prevent developers from using their own payment methods. It’s sort of the App Store anti-fan club.
Or, at a minimum, it’s the “we would like to see changes to the way Apple exerts control over the App Store in favor of increased competition” club.
“I see privacy and competition as two sides of the same coin,” Yen told me. “And what I mean by that is, you don’t really fix privacy if you don’t fix competition first. That’s the reason why Proton as a company is interested in competition.”
The idea is that if privacy-focused startups are going to be able to succeed, they need to be able to compete. ProtonMail, for example, competes with Apple’s own mail app and service. But, unlike Apple Mail, which is installed by default, and free to users, ProtonMail has to hand over 30 percent of its subscription fees to Apple. That means it has to charge more than it otherwise might to offer a product that provides a more secure service. And, by the way, email services are notoriously insecure.
But Yen’s statement about Apple brings up a much larger point: The things you say you value are one thing. What you actually value can be seen in what you do. When those two things don’t line up, there’s a disconnect.
There’s a reason that this is so important. Every time you say you value one thing, and then show you value something else, you damage your credibility, which erodes trust. Trust, it turns out, is your most valuable asset.
And, Apple has built its brand on trust. To that end, I think Apple deserves credit for pushing the conversation on privacy. It introduced more privacy-protective features in Mail and Safari, and now requires developers to ask for permission before they track you across apps and websites.
Apple has also taken a stand against creating a back door to encryption and has even stood its ground against the FBI and Department of Justice over accessing devices associated with several high-profile cases.
But, where Yen’s point really hits home is the fact that Apple preaches privacy, while at the same time linking so much of its business to China. That’s the context behind Yen’s statement about whether Apple values privacy as much as it values profit.
Apple makes most of its products in China, and the country is one of its most important markets. And, when pressed by the Chinese government, Apple agreed to store iCloud data for its Chinese customers on servers managed by a company in China. More importantly, it agreed to store the encryption keys locally, giving the Chinese government far easier access to the data and communications of its citizens who use Apple’s products.
Sure, doing business in China is complicated. However, if you believe privacy is a fundamental human right, why would you compromise on it for a government that is notorious for violating human rights?
The entire subject is complicated, but there’s actually a simple lesson: If you say something is a core value to your business, it’s not a good look to do anything to appear you are compromising those values for the bottom line.