Proton is taking its privacy-first apps to a nonprofit foundation model

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Proton, the secure-minded email and productivity suite, is becoming a nonprofit foundation, but it doesn’t want you to think about it in the way you think about other notable privacy and web foundations.

“We believe that if we want to bring about large-scale change, Proton can’t be billionaire-subsidized (like Signal), Google-subsidized (like Mozilla), government-subsidized (like Tor), donation-subsidized (like Wikipedia), or even speculation-subsidized (like the plethora of crypto “foundations”),” Proton CEO Andy Yen wrote in a blog post announcing the transition. “Instead, Proton must have a profitable and healthy business at its core.”

The announcement comes exactly 10 years to the day after a crowdfunding campaign saw 10,000 people give more than $500,000 to launch Proton Mail. To make it happen, Yen, along with co-founder Jason Stockman and first employee Dingchao Lu, endowed the Proton Foundation with some of their shares. The Proton Foundation is now the primary shareholder of the business Proton, which Yen states will “make irrevocable our wish that Proton remains in perpetuity an organization that places people ahead of profits.” Among other members of the Foundation’s board is Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of HTML, HTTP, and almost everything else about the web.

Of particular importance is where Proton and the Proton Foundation are located: Switzerland. As Yen noted, Swiss foundations do not have shareholders and are instead obligated to act “in accordance with the purpose for which they were established.” While the for-profit entity Proton AG can still do things like offer stock options to recruits and even raise its own capital on private markets, the Foundation serves as a backstop against moving too far from Proton’s founding mission, Yen wrote.

There’s a lot more Proton to protect these days

Proton has gone from a single email offering to a wide range of services, many of which specifically target the often invasive offerings of other companies (read, mostly: Google). You can now take your cloud files, passwords, and calendars over to Proton and use its VPN services, most of which offer end-to-end encryption and open source core software hosted in Switzerland, with its notably strong privacy laws.

None of that guarantees that a Swiss court can’t compel some forms of compliance from Proton, as happened in 2021. But compared to most service providers, Proton offers a far clearer and easier-to-grasp privacy model: It can’t see your stuff, and it only makes money from subscriptions.

Of course, foundations are only as strong as the people who guide them, and seemingly firewalled profit/non-profit models can be changed. Time will tell if Proton’s new model can keep up with changing markets—and people.