Freedom is a human right, and we are committed to defending it even when others won’t

illustration of ProtonMail free speech

Since we launched in 2014, ProtonMail has been the preferred email service provider for activists around the world. Protecting freedom of speech and democracy is, after all, one of the main reasons we created ProtonMail in the first place. Normally, this would not be of particular interest to anyone: we have always believed that all citizens deserve the right to privacy, and we maintain neutrality on most political matters. 

But the decision by some companies to bow to political pressure surrounding activists in Hong Kong, Indonesia, Catalonia, and elsewhere has suddenly made this issue controversial. Given that some of these protesters are ProtonMail users, we would like to take this opportunity to clarify our position on the use of our platform by social activists.

Rising activism around the world

Reports of activism around the world have been on the rise, and in recent months, the size and frequency of protest movements appear to have rapidly increased. It is a fact that these activists  are increasingly turning to ProtonMail. 

Examples include activists in Hong Kong, including the makers of HKmap, who are using our service to keep their communications secure. In Spain, Catalonian independence campaigners at Tsunami Democràtic have been using ProtonMail to coordinate their activities. In West Papua, the independent media activists at West Papua Media use ProtonMail to communicate with foreign journalists in response to enforced censorship by the Indonesian government. In the UK and the US, members of the climate protest group Extinction Rebellion have been using ProtonMail to organize. 

The right to peaceful protest is one of the cornerstones of democracy. The Internet has given people the tools to share ideas and coordinate their actions more easily than ever before. But equally it’s given governments the ability to shut down opposition more efficiently than at any other time in history. As a result, we believe tech companies have a responsibility to protect the essential freedoms that others have fought to gain. This doesn’t mean that we have to take a particular side in a debate, but it’s vital that we allow the debate to take place. 

Why activists choose ProtonMail

We founded ProtonMail to build an Internet that protects privacy, defends civil liberties, and keeps users safe from cyber attacks. We firmly believe in the right to free speech, the right to privacy and security, and the principle that no one should be prevented from exercising these rights. 

We believe that technology has an important role in safeguarding human rights in the 21st century. Specifically at ProtonMail, we have leveraged end-to-end encryption to protect privacy by ensuring that, on ProtonMail, only the sender and recipient can read user messages. No third party, no government, and not even us, can abuse ProtonMail to spy on user communications, thus enabling the privacy which forms the foundation of freedom of speech.

Because the technology behind our service protects against surveillance and government harassment, ProtonMail is the preferred platform for journalists, investigators, and human rights groups, particularly those working in high-risk environments. Because of our strong belief in the need to protect freedom of speech for all, we have also endeavored to go above and beyond to protect Proton’s most sensitive users from both cybercriminals and governments what would seek to deny these rights. This is a moral obligation that we feel all companies should seek to uphold, but this has unfortunately not been the case.

There is a long history of companies bowing to political or social pressure to protect their access to markets. We’ve seen Google filtering results in certain territories where censorship is legal, and more recently we’ve seen Apple store data in China and remove apps created by protesters, including the HKmap app developed by one of our users in Hong Kong. 

At ProtonMail, we’ve taken a different approach that honors both political neutrality and the belief that the rights of privacy and free speech should apply to everyone.

We support peaceful protest and access to privacy

Proton is a Swiss company, which means we operate under Swiss law and only Swiss law. Therefore, users are protected by Switzerland’s strong rule of law: foreign law enforcement requests must be approved by a Swiss court before we can be compelled to act on them. When protesters use ProtonMail, we don’t take a position for or against the protest, only that we support the right to peacefully protest.

We do, however, take a position on the right to privacy, security, and freedom of speech. We firmly believe that everyone, no matter where they live or what they believe, has a right to express their ideas peacefully in public and privately online. We have also supported various causes ourselves, from a face surveillance moratorium to net neutrality.

Finally, it is important to note that the use of ProtonMail is not unconditional. We have clear terms and conditions that prohibit activity that would be illegal in Switzerland, such as hate speech or destruction of property. Breaking these rules will result in accounts being disabled. If a Swiss court rules that your usage of ProtonMail is illegal, this would also result in your account being shut down, as we must abide by all applicable Swiss laws. 

We’re proud that our platform is being used by activists as a means of communicating, staying safe, and getting their voices heard. Everyone has the right to privacy, whether they are a campaigner or a regular member of the public, and ProtonMail is happy to provide the means for this to happen. There are no factors, political or economic, which can lead us to compromise this core value.

Best regards,
The ProtonMail Team

About ProtonMail
ProtonMail is the world’s largest secure email service. Founded in Geneva in 2014 by scientists who met at the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN), ProtonMail protects over 10 million users, including journalists, activists, doctors, lawyers, businesses, and ordinary citizens who want email that is both safer and more private. Because messages are end-to-end encrypted, we cannot read your emails, sell your data to advertisers or compromise the privacy of your communications. ProtonMail is email as it should be — private and secure.

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

Andy Yen

Andy is the Founder and CEO of ProtonMail. Originally from Taiwan, he is a long time advocate of privacy rights and has spoken at TED, SXSW, and the Asian Investigative Journalism Conference about online privacy issues. Previously, Andy was a research scientist at CERN and received his PhD in Particle Physics from Harvard University. You can watch his TED talk online to learn more about ProtonMail's mission.

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52 comments on “Freedom is a human right, and we are committed to defending it even when others won’t

  • Hello, I’ve read this article of yours and I think you should correct it.

    Tsunami Democrátic is not an activist group, it is an extremely violent ultra-left and nationalist group that has been charged by Spanish judges for alleged crimes of terrorism, street violence, attempted homicide, vandalism, among other multiple crimes.

    Here you can read the news:

    https://elpais.com/elpais/2019/09/27/inenglish/1569568870_128248.html
    https://elpais.com/elpais/2019/10/19/inenglish/1571484159_002176.html

    Therefore, they do not use protonmail to coordinate their activism but rather their criminal organization.

    I hope that you will correct it since you say that you do not support violence.

    Reply
    • The articles you cited don’t support your statement. Moreover, we would not follow the ruling of a Spanish judge because we are a Swiss company.

      Reply
  • Thus been against Tsunamic Democratic (his goals) and the catalonian independent movement as I’m from Spain and I follow the details of the situation (btw what they want would be also illegal on Switzerland), but that not mean at all that I’m against of his use from ProtonMail, as you said is a Human right the privacy on ther comunication and protest pacefully, and I’m sadly certain that in cases like this Spain or other European countries would spy them, and they SHOULDN’T!

    Reply
  • Two Catalan pro-independence former members of parliament, Anna Gabriel and Marta Rovira, live in exile in Switzerland fleeing Spanish political persecution, this proves that Switzerland is a country that will protect activists fighting for democracy and Protonmail made the right decision establishing their headquarters there.

    Reply
  • “We do, however, take a position on the right to privacy, security, and freedom of speech.”

    “prohibit activity that would be illegal in Switzerland, such as hate speech or destruction of property.”

    Free speech and hate speech are two separate things? Free speech means you can say anything and not be held legally accountable. Hate speech feels certain speech is essentially illegal and forbidden. ProtonMail, you need to pick one. Are you for free speech or not? Cause if your not, your going to lose many customers and be consider politically biased.

    Reply
    • Hate speech is illegal under Art. 261 and 261bis of the Swiss criminal code and related case law. As a company based in Switzerland, we are required to comply with Swiss law.

      Reply
  • @Carlos

    Your links to an ultra nationalist Spanish newspaper do not prove anything, it is hillarious seeing you trying to pass off as real the information that a biased fake news Spanish nationalist newspaper publishes.

    If we stick to facts we can see that Spain, besides using violence to stop Catalan people from voting in a referendum and sentincing peaceful Catalan politicians to 13 years in prison for organising a referendum, it is as well the only country in the World where Tsunami Democratic is illegal, nowhere else in the European Union, USA, Switzerland, etc have a problem with Tsunami Democratic.

    It is always funny to see how Spanish nationalists claim that their country is right and everybody else in the World is wrong. Spain is a democracy as much as it is Turkey, as long as you are not Kurdish or Catalan, you have the right to protest, otherwise jail awaits you.

    Reply
  • “We firmly believe that everyone, no matter where they live or what they believe, has a right to express their ideas peacefully in public and privately online.”

    AND

    “We have clear terms and conditions that prohibit activity that would be illegal in Switzerland, such as hate speech or destruction of property. Breaking these rules will result in accounts being disabled.”

    In other words, some ideas cannot be expressed. What is commonly termed “hate speech” is the speech that is most in need of protection, yet it is the very speech that will be “disabled”. Compliance with Swiss law may be necessary, but it should not be equated with supporting free speech.

    Reply
    • Swiss law sets a high bar for what is considered discriminatory hate speech. For context, we have never received an order to disable an account because of hate speech.

      Reply
  • I like everything about this article except I’m curious about the enforcement of hate speech.

    I recognize that you must comply with Swiss law whether you agree with it or not, but practically speaking, how do you know if someone is using their account for hate speech? Do you monitor our accounts for key words or…??

    Honest question, thanks

    Reply
    • Thanks for the question, K, it’s a good one. We can’t monitor accounts for anything because all messages are end-to-end encrypted or zero-access encrypted, and we can’t access them. We can only enforce this when presented with an order from Swiss law enforcement.

      Reply
    • Generally speaking, yes, but illegal discriminatory speech is defined in Swiss law, and we must follow this definition as a Swiss company.

      Reply
  • Just curious, how do you know who is using your services? Are you censoring all the communications goes in and out of protonmail?

    Reply
    • We only know who is using our services if they publicize their email address. All of the organizations listed in this article have publicly available ProtonMail email addresses listed on their websites or social media. And no, we cannot and do not censor communications since all messages are end-to-end encrypted or zero-access encrypted.

      Reply
  • This is terrible. Why does everybody have to virtue signal about their “values”. I liked your company because it was small and stayed out of issues and just offered people a necessary service, now you’ve joined the ranks about trying to score favor points with people. By saying which groups you support you’re going to get hate and support from people who agree or disagree with the groups you’ve listed. Just look at the comment section it’s already turned into an argument. Can’t you just simply support who you think you should support without the need to tell everybody about it, it’s obvious you’re trying to score points with the advocacy crowd. I’m very disappointed in this decision to openly support advocacy.

    Also you say you support human rights, yet you won’t support hate speech. The right of free speech includes hate speech. People NEED the right to speak their mind, no matter how stupid, insulting or hurtful it is otherwise the alternative is tyranny and oppression.
    “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.” – Evelyn Beatrice Hall, 1906

    Reply
    • Thanks for your feedback. Just wanted to point out that there’s a high bar for what constitutes illegal discriminatory speech in Switzerland, and we follow Swiss law in this regard.

      Reply
  • These days many tech companies use the garb of “hate speech” to suppress freedom of speech as well in case the opinion does not allign with their views which is largely left biased. ( Google, twitter, Fb..the whole bunch). My question is who decides what is hate speech? When facts these days are considered “offensive” and liable to be supressed when they don’t support a particular ideology. My suggestion is a tech company must allow all discussion and debate on it’s platform and leave it to citizens to ignore what is not worth it.

    Reply
    • To be clear, we don’t decide what is hate speech. In fact, because of our encryption, we don’t have access to the contents of our users’ emails. However, if one of our users is using ProtonMail in a way that violates Swiss law, we may be compelled by Swiss authorities to take action against that user. In Switzerland, certain kinds of discriminatory speech is illegal.

      Reply
  • I absolutely support your policy in this matter. However I will remind you that Extincion Rebellion is a fanatic activist-group which stands for exactly the opposite of your standpoint. They use violence without hesitation to silence their opponents. They also use violence to hinder legal demonstrations by political parties which is in opposition to them.
    Anyway, I am looking forward to new versions of ProtonMail. Maybe it will be possible to format the text properly. As it is now, I’m avoiding texting to much because it is so primitive.
    I wish you all the best of luck with your research and development.

    Best regards
    Willy Ødegaard von Busche

    Reply
  • Thank you for your admirable and ongoing efforts toward internet privacy and security. I have recommended Proton Mail to all of my friends. Only a couple seem to have taken my advice, but at least, that’s a start.
    Sincerely, S.A. Leopold

    Reply
    • Thank you for your support and for recommending us! We’ve grown to millions of users mainly by word of mouth. The more people who use ProtonMail, the more emails will be end-to-end encrypted by default.

      Reply
  • I’m happy to read this post.

    For several years now, I have been peacefully protesting abuse at a church where I used to be a member. Two years ago, the church tried to claim in court that various words, taken entirely out of context, that I had used on my blog amounted to terroristic threats. The police declined to act, but as part of the church’s civil lawsuit it got a Canadian court to authorize access to my Hushmail account. I never received notice or a chance to tall my side of the story. While the church could not get access to encrypted messages, it tried to use location and other meta data in court — and Hushmail has a lot to that! Those efforts went nowhere, but the church did get access to confidential data from subject lines, etc, that it tried to use to embarrass me in court.

    So, lesson learned! No more Hushmail. And I continue to protest as the church gets smaller and smaller!

    Reply
  • Andy, how do you determine there is hate mail going thru ProtonMail if you are unable to read the messages? Also, how do you determine someone is a terrorist and using ProtonMail to disseminate attack plans? I am in support of ProtonMail’s stance on freedom of speech, but terrorists should not be allowed to use ProtonMail for nefarious activities.

    Reply
    • Law enforcement agencies are the best placed to make those determinations, and we comply with all legal orders from the relevant authorities in our jurisdiction (Switzerland). You’re correct that we would not be able to access users’ messages.

      Reply
  • Thank you so much for your commitment to defending human rights. We are aware it is not always easy. You’ll probably receive pressure in many ways. For an authoritarian regime and its supporters, protesters are always terrorists: Hong Kong and Catalonia are just two examples. But more and more international organisations and acknowledged human rights activists stand up for Catalonia. Thank you very much.

    Reply
  • Ok, so you believe in “Free Speech” but you allow the Swedish government to censor “Hate Speech.” Sell out. Much of what is considered “hate speech” is only speech that particular forms of governments (left-leaning) don’t want out there. In the United States, a leftist organization, The Southern Poverty Law Center, is often trusted to make these determinations. The SPLC’s working definition of “hate speech” is to disagree with their extreme left positions.
    I’d be much more enthusiastic if ProtonMail listed hate speech – such as terrorist activities, threats to murder or injure other people, etc., rather than take the weasel-way out of it by letting a term, “hate speech,” which means absolutely nothing at this point in history, but is rather used to censor those who disagree with immigration policies, etc.

    Reply
    • There is a high bar for what counts as illegal discriminatory speech in Switzerland (we are subject to Swiss, not Swedish, jurisdiction). A policy disagreement would not be considered illegal, for example.

      Reply
  • What is at stake regarding Tsunami Democratic is not its goal of getting independence for Catalonia or dissenting about a legal case (conviction of their leaders), but their undemocratic and violent means.

    In this debate, instead of trying to defend each one their own view, we should rather focus on what unites different social and political actors.

    Peace, tolerance, democratic Rule of Law and non-violence should be our common, overlapping consensus.
    Anyone using Protonmail for other purposes, should be evicted from this digital community.

    Reply
  • you are treading on soft ground: Yes, some persons need protection and should be able to voice their ideas and comments without having to fear repercussions. But among the ACTIVISTS you want to protect there are a good number that spread content that is totally contrary to facts and scientific data, or they are just hypothesis presented as facts…

    How would you police such misuse? We have enough of that already in public social media from Facebook to Twitter etc…

    Reply
    • We don’t police people’s opinions, and we can’t because our encryption prevents us from accessing the contents of users’ emails. So for example, if the Flat Earth Society used ProtonMail, they’re welcome to as long as they abide by our terms and conditions.

      Reply
  • THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR SUPPORTING FREE SPEECH! and not cowing to pressure to censor people. Also as Governments are the #1 causes of violence throughout history against each other and their own people, one should be very careful to trust them and Fake News demonizing a certain group such as NRA, Hong Kong protestors, Constitutional Patriots (in U.S. that is). Governments would try to list these groups as terrorist organizations when they are not.

    Reply
  • It’s all well and good but what defines hate speech? If you have an opinion on moral values such as religious values against modern-day ideology which has now been written into law in many Western countries such as for example lbgt transexual identity and other ologies.

    What if you disagree with mass immigration of foreigners and that the indigenous people should be protected in their own country without endless mass open immigration.

    The two examples above are and could be construed as hate speech so where does he speaks begin or end with proton mail?

    Reply
    • We only take action against an account when presented with a valid order from Swiss authorities. We can’t scan or filter email contents ourselves because of our encryption.

      Reply
  • Thank you so much for giving us a secure platform. Almost all rational HKer couldn’t believe that Apple being a head of IT security made such decision and shows much afraid of the Beijing.
    I hope, Protonmail, won’t be the next Apple.

    Reply
  • CERN is nuclear. That is a concern for many of us. What is Mr Yens position on nuclear War?
    We appreciate any help regarding our human rights especially at Freedom of speech and our Privacy which has almost been destroyed globally specially in Aus. We trust you are as committed as we are. xx

    Reply
  • How is it that my yesterday’s comment is not worthy of being published? Exposing your obvious bias, inconsistencies, foolishness is not very pleasant to accept, is it?
    Sam

    Reply
    • Your comment the other day included personal insults about the author. We’re happy to discuss ideas on our blog, but we need to keep it constructive and positive.

      Reply
    • We provide our platform to everyone. We’re not the thought police. However, we don’t tolerate the use of our platform for criminal activities, and we take action when specific violations are brought to our attention.

      Reply
  • Andy and Ben,
    Thanks for creating this secure platform for all of us interested in at least a bit of privacy with our communications.
    I’m curious how ‘hate speech’, referred to in your post, is defined and applied in Switzerland, since here in the U.S. the definition and the application are often very different, with the application having a much wider range of enforcement depending on who the enforcer is. The social media giants here have been using a sliding ‘hate speech’ scale in order to prevent various topics, and what they call ‘protected groups’, including specific countries, from being discussed on their platforms. As you are probably already aware, many creators on these platforms have been banned suddenly, because the ‘hate speech’ scale was suddenly changed without notice. Many have never been told what their ‘hate speech’ infraction actually was. And this sliding scale censorship, based on ‘hate speech’, has gotten worse over time.
    This has resulted in a creating a chilling effect on anyone utilizing these platforms unless they’re discussing pets, sports or doing ‘how to’ posts.
    Is the same thing occurring in Switzerland?
    If so, can you give some sort of idea how heavy the censorship police are operating there and what to avoid?
    Also, social media platforms are public forums, while email is a private communication, so how are Swiss ‘hate speech’ laws applied to email platforms like ProtonMail, especially since ProtonMail email communications are encrypted?
    Is the complaint and potential enforcement strictly dependent on the email receiver?
    As you can imagine, the idea that all email is being screened by ProtonMail filters, would certainly negate the claim that encryption is actually protecting those emails from third party observation.
    Thanks
    Tim

    Reply
    • Hi Tim, great questions. We can’t really advise you what to avoid or guarantee how Switzerland will enforce its laws. But I can tell you we’ve never received a request to shut down an account due to hate speech. In Switzerland, the “hate speech” laws (they’re not generally called that here) deal with publicly inciting hatred against particularly groups of people or actively discriminating against someone (e.g. for a job) on the basis of their race, religion, etc. These laws could apply to email communications, for example if you send a newsletter. Regarding your last point, we don’t filter or screen emails for content because we can’t, thanks to our end-to-end encryption and zero-access encryption prevent us from accessing emails. However, note that if you send an email to, say, a Gmail account, Google will have access to it.

      Reply
  • Dear Andy Yen, infinite thanks for your article and especially for founding ProtonMail.
    We all know how important freedom of expression is in a world where information is increasingly manipulated. We are adults, we must all discern for themselves, but for that it is necessary to protect that freedom. I thank you and congratulate you for your position in this regard.
    Do not take verbal attacks seriously. There will always be people allergic to free thinking and free expression.
    Courage and go ahead!

    Reply
  • Thank you for doing what you do ProtonMail! 😀 It seems like there aren’t any entities out there making digital tools that guard our safety that also have the resources to protect them and make them user friendly other than you and a handful of others companies.

    So many people in the comments harping “But what about muh free speech?!? GoTcHa SeLlOuTs!” clearly didn’t read any deeper than a quick skim looking for buzz words, because if they had taken the time to read the article, they would have realized that their “question” was already answered; Swiss Law compels you to act on legally defined hate-speech. All the “righteous” anger spewing out of them is just immature posturing, which is deeply ironic because it’s exactly the kind of behavior they loudly label virtue signaling.

    Reply
  • Please define “hate speech”. In Canada, that term is used to shut down free speech that disagrees with certain social justice warriors that war against all the former norms of society. “Hate speech” has been given such broad leeway it includes anything that offends anyone unless you happen to be conservative or Christian. Then real hate speech against these groups is just fine.

    Reply
    • Hi Aeriol, this question has been discussed in some of the other comments. We don’t define hate speech, Swiss law does (we’re based in Geneva and subject to the laws of Switzerland). Moreover, the contents of emails sent on our platform are inaccessible to us because of our encryption.

      Reply