Privacy isn’t free. Here’s why that’s a good thing.

why users pay for protonmail

Every once in a while, we are asked the question, why should I pay for ProtonMail when I can use Gmail for free? Or why should I pay for ProtonMail when there are cheaper email services available? This is actually a good question worthy of a deeper discussion. 

Google isn’t actually free

First, it’s important to point out that services such as Google aren’t free. While it’s true that you do not pay with cash every month, you pay with something far more precious: your personal data. From your location history to health records to the way you scroll through a website, your personal data makes up a complete profile that detects even your most secret wishes. This profile can then be used to influence the way you think and shop. 

There is no shortage of privacy scandals to help underline the real cost of an ad-based business model. From the hack of Yahoo that exposed the personal information, including the real names, dates of birth, and telephone numbers, of 3 billion users, to Cambridge Analytica’s collection of personal data from millions of Facebook users, the consequences of having this personal data collected and then exposed have been massive. We’ve even seen how it can be used to manipulate election results. The chase for profits generally comes at the expense of users, who have little or no say in how companies use their data. And while companies sell your data for several dollars per month per user, the loss of control over personal information, the imposition of government and corporate surveillance, and the erosion of the democratic process are the real hidden costs.

Proton’s business model puts users first

While ProtonMail also provides free email accounts, we do not sell your personal information to advertisers or scan your inbox for clues about your interests and habits. We avoid this by financing our business through paid plans that include additional features and customer support. Paid plans are our only source of revenue. Users who subscribe to paid plans can access extra features such as more storage space, multiple email addresses, auto-responder, and more labels and filters.

And that’s it. We don’t sell ads. We don’t sell your data in any way. Because of our end-to-end encryption and zero-access encryption, we can’t scan your inbox.

So how does ProtonMail make money?

We only make money if you decide to upgrade. By aligning our financial incentives with your needs, it is never difficult for us to do what’s right for our community. Because you pay us specifically to protect your personal data, we are highly incentivized not to betray your trust.

At Proton, our product is privacy itself. We don’t just refuse to sell your data to third parties, such as advertisers, we don’t have access to it because of our encryption. We don’t ask for any personal details to create an account, and we give users several privacy-conscious payment options, including Bitcoin and cash. 

Strong privacy protection is expensive

With your support, we invest heavily in activities that keep your data secure, improve our product, and make ProtonMail sustainable in the long term. Here are just some of the expenses associated with running our service:

Swiss infrastructure

We run all our own data centers and networks inside Switzerland because of the country’s strong privacy laws (outside the 14 Eyes surveillance network), highly qualified workforce, and robust physical Internet infrastructure. We purchase all our servers rather than rent them for security reasons, and we employ a 24/7 infrastructure operations team to ensure we meet our 99.95% uptime guarantee. We also run 24/7 DDoS protection.

Human capital

ProtonMail employs specialists from around the world who work to make sure your emails are safe, our community is cared for, and our company is moving toward our vision of a better Internet. We employ highly qualified engineers, cryptographers, communications specialists, and customer support staff. We also make massive investments into anti-abuse, anti-spam, and anti-phishing capabilities, which help ensure user safety. Additionally, we have a fully staffed mail deliverability team that ensures that your emails are always delivered to the intended recipient and not accidentally sent to spam or lost. 

Our support team is staffed seven days a week and during nights and weekends. If you have an issue, a real human will get back to you. Furthermore, we also have an in-house legal team to provide legal protection for Proton users. As detailed in our Transparency Report, we rigorously screen and scrutinize all law enforcement requests. Our legal department does not accept all requests, and we routinely go to court to fight requests which we feel are unwarranted, excessively broad, or simply erroneous. Choosing to defy court orders in certain cases also requires us to set aside funds to pay for potential fines. While extensive, these expenses are necessary to provide the highest level of protection to Proton users.

Security 

Many ProtonMail users have heightened security needs. And because we have high-profile users, our service is sometimes targeted in state-sponsored cyberattacks. We must invest heavily to ensure our system architecture is capable of fending off such attacks. Some examples of this rigor include:

These security features are largely unique to Proton. While often not visible to the user, they offer a much higher level of security than similar services. 

Building a better Internet

We’re not just creating an email service. We’re creating the world we want to live in. That means supporting millions of free users who cannot or choose not to pay for ProtonMail. When more people use ProtonMail, more emails are end-to-end encrypted by default, which improves privacy for everyone, including paying users.

We are strongly committed to ensuring interoperability and strengthening not just Proton, but the privacy ecosystem as a whole. So we also spend a significant amount of money maintaining widely used open source cryptographic libraries (such as OpenPGPjs and GopenPGP), funding independent news organizations in authoritarian countries (such as Charter’97), or supporting organizations we believe in. This spending doesn’t directly contribute to features, but we view it as a part of our responsibility to society.

The Proton community is changing the world

We believe the business model of the Internet must change in order to defend the rights of people online. More and more people are taking back their digital freedom and embracing an Internet that respects them. We have a huge amount of appreciation for those who choose to pay for Proton. You are leading this transition to a better Internet. 

Your contribution improves and expands our products and proves that this alternative business model that does the right thing for users is viable. 

It is only together with the community that we can achieve what we have set out to do, and although it is taking longer than most of us would like, we are slowly but surely getting there with your support.

Best regards,
The ProtonMail team

You can get a free secure email account from ProtonMail here.

We also provide a free VPN service to protect your privacy.

ProtonMail and ProtonVPN are funded by community contributions. If you would like to support our development efforts, you can upgrade to a paid plan or donate. Thank you for your support.

About the Author

Admin

We are scientists, engineers, and developers drawn together by a shared vision of protecting civil liberties online. Ensuring online privacy and security are core values for the ProtonMail team, and we strive daily to protect your rights online.

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10 comments on “Privacy isn’t free. Here’s why that’s a good thing.

  • Hi! I want to start off by saying I’m a Visionary user who loves your service! This is my first time commenting, but I just had to do so in order to give feedback on three sentences in this blog post. 1) “First, it’s important to point out that services such as Google aren’t free. While it’s true that you do not pay with cash every month, you pay with something far more precious: your personal data” – Merriam-Webster defines “free” as “not costing or charging anything”, so actually, Google’s services are free; and while I recognize the value of personal data (hence why I am a Visionary subscriber), this line of thinking just doesn’t appeal to the average Internet user (hence why over 2 billion use Gmail and Facebook). I applaud and praise your move to offer a free tier of your service, as my experience of telling people about ProtonMail tells me more people care about price than they do about mission/motivation, and premium features are a great incentive to paid plans afterwards. 2) “And while companies sell your data” – is this not mostly false? If a company sells users’ data, they lose those clients afterwards, because those clients won’t have to use that company anymore since they have the data. Google, as far as I know, offers advertisers keywords to let them advertise to specific users, but they don’t give away the data. I might be wrong about the ad industry as a whole, but it seems weird that any ad company would sell data rather than keywords and tracking tools. 3) “We also run 24/7 DDoS protection” – I know what this means, but many, many, many people do not. Please remember that articles centered around security measures are obviously going to be chock-full of technical jargon, but articles like this – explaining why privacy isn’t free – seems to be based around explaining things that should be understood by anyone; “DDoS” is an unknown abbreviation for many non-tech-savvy people. A simple link to a security article explaining it would go a long way to bridge the knowledge gap.

    All this said, keep doing the work you do, I’m loving your service!

    Reply
    • Thank you, Christian! Your points are all well taken. To your first two: Personal data has enormous value. If you trade your house for something, you may not have exchanged money, but you did not get something for free. And the data you give away by using Google and similar services is directly or indirectly sold to other companies as ad-targeting solutions, market research data, etc.

      Reply
  • “Swiss infrastructure” … OK, but what’s Swiss credibility after Crypto AG scandal ? What impact on Protonmail business model ?

    Reply
  • You guys provide an excellent service. When I chat verbally to someone else about personal matters, I want confidentiality. In the world of email, you guys provide exactly that. For that reason, I’m a happy Pro subscriber and a big fan of ProtonMail. Thank you 🙂

    Reply
  • Christian,

    Don’t read M-W too narrowly. Cost means much more than a currency exchange. Costs can be financial, environmental, health, time, freedom, etc. Remember Econ 101 TANSTAAFL “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch”

    Keep spreading the word. We need more Visionary members
    Best wishes,

    Reply
  • What process will I have to implement to change all of my desired contacts over to my new address when I make the switch. RSVP

    Reply