ProtonMail CEO defends internet freedom in support with Hongkongers

Published (HKT): 2020.09.14 16:32

Founder of ProtonMail and vocal supporter of Hong Kong democracy movement Andy Yen tells fellow freedom fighters, “If we all believe we can bring about changes and try to do so, I believe we will succeed.” Having a strong belief is the key to victory, the Taiwanese American scientist asserts.

In his early thirties, Yen is now based in Geneva. His last visit to Hong Kong was nearly a decade ago, which left the impression that the city was just as modernized and clean as the capitals of major European countries.

He visited China on the same tour. Although major cities such as Beijing and Shanghai also appeared to be modern and advanced, he noticed a major difference. “You are under surveillance and you know it. To a certain extent, you realize you are in a police state.”

Yen has worked as a particle physicist at CERN, a European Organization for Nuclear Research, in 2013, when the Snowden leaks drew his attention to a lack of data privacy on the internet. Together with some coworkers, he began working on email encryption services in his spare time and launched ProtonMail the next year.

The project was met with enthusiastic response and has attracted a huge number of users, who fundraised US$500,000 to support its development. “This is just an example of what can happen when you bring the community together towards a common goal. We can also leverage the world,” said Yen in a TED talk in 2014.

Yen has been defending the rights and privacy of Hong Kong people. He provided encrypted communications services to an activist initiative called Hong Kong Protest Live Map. Shortly after Beijing imposed a national security law on Hong Kong, he donated half of ProtonVPN’s revenue in the following months to two local civil rights organizations.

“The cause of freedom has no borders, and in order to succeed we must stand together. Hong Kong’s fight is also the world’s fight, and we all have a responsibility to stand with Hong Kong,” his statement wrote.

Yen believes the legislation put an end to the city’s freedom of speech. “If you scrutinize the legislation to understand the Chinese Communist Party’s purpose, you will realize how harmful it is to the freedom of speech. I find that very sad,” says Yen, adding that Hong Kong is on the frontline of a global battle for internet freedom.

Proton is not only defending Hong Kong’s freedom, but also supporting any place in the world where freedom is under threat, Yen emphasizes. Countries and events are interconnected under globalization, and only through solidarity can people defeat the enemies of freedom and democracy.

“If you stand by today while others' freedom and democracy is being undermined, who will lend you a helping hand if it happens to you tomorrow?” he questions.

“Over time and having accumulated more experience, I have realized how much impact internet freedom, privacy and safety have on people’s daily lives, the civil society and the government,” says Yen. People often don’t realize until they start losing their rights, the activist against surveillance adds.

The company has not received any data requests from the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities so far, after the new legislation gave the government more powers to access private communication. The company will reject such requests anyways, Yen assures.

He acknowledges the growing risk of being targeted by authorities for speaking out, but he believes the only way to reduce the risk is if every company and every government comes out in defense of freedom and human rights.

“Have faith. History will declare Hong Kong’s fight for freedom and democracy right,” says Yen.

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