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One of the most common questions we get asked is why I started Purism. And given the growing importance of Purism’s mission amid the barrage of news about how large tech companies are surveilling and exposing their users, it seemed like an opportune time to share our origin story, and why I felt it was important to create this alternative to the status quo.
When my first daughter was born, in 2007, her birth had a profound impact on me. Like many parents, I was instantly catapulted into a stance of protection over my child, and felt the weight of responsibility for this little person’s life.
My second child was born 20 months later in 2009, only multiplying the impact my decisions would make on our family.
There are so many issues one must consider as a parent. Parenthood is possibly the single most philosophical decision-making journey a person can undergo, so it should come as no surprise that as new parents, my wife and I were researching decisions from diapers to food, housing, clothing, school districts and… technology.
And as I’ve come to find, that last topic has become the most critical one over the last decade. Like a lot of parents, I set off to research what technology choices could be made for my children as they would grow to adulthood.
But unlike a lot of parents, I am an expert on software, hardware, and what goes on behind the curtain to bring these products to market. And I know it’s not pretty.
As my children were growing, I could see that within a few years they and their friends would be wanting a mobile phone; they would want to use Internet services to chat, record personal videos and share experiences with friends. Like most parents, I had questions and concerns about the current state of big-tech products and services, about their exploitative business practices.
But, unlike most parents, I knew at that time there was no way to change these companies, no way they would come to embody important moral values like respecting me, my kids, and their friends.
I then thought, so what tech future would I like to see instead? What would that future look like for me, my family, for my kids’ friends? What would that look like for all of society? For example, what would be needed for owning a mobile phone that fully respected our rights to privacy and freedom?
So deeper and deeper I went, to dissect and answer that question to the fullest possible extent. Let’s take a simple request that combines a lot of issues into one: “I’d like that, when I am chatting with my child, there’s actually only the two of us in the conversation.”
This should be so simple – but it is nowhere near the case. At each layer of the existing mobile phones, that conversation is shared with a growing list of participants who have unfettered access to my, and my child’s, digital life.
The application author [Facebook (and its subsidiaries, Whatsapp, Instagram), Snapchat, et al.], even with unverified encryption in a proprietary app, controls that data. The operating system vendor (Apple or Google) controls that data. The network provider (Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, et al.) controls that data. And, of course, governments also have influence over any of those organizations. And so this is one ugly tech stack of privacy invasion, a gordian knot to unravel simply in order to have a private conversation with my child.
I could certainly elaborate, providing example after example of simple requests that are impossible to accomplish with today’s mobile phones, but will summarize it in the following list: GPS location data permanently stored and shared, all photos, videos, and message history also stored and shared, browsing searches tracked indefinitely, every interaction with every person ever, never deleted – just to name a few of a mile-long list of issues.
These tech-stacks of exploitation were not really built by accident. They are wired into the business models of every tech company in the space; not a single one advances moral values over their shareholder value. And so I knew there was no way to get to have individual freedom and control from the current phone hardware or from its OS vendor (Apple or Google). I unfortunately knew there was no way to respect the digital civil rights of society by playing the silicon valley exploitation game.
That to solve all these problems with technology, I would have to start from scratch.
I also knew that starting with a mobile phone (without immense silicon valley investment) would be very difficult, so I had to come up with a plan. I needed to start from the ground-up. I needed to create an ethical computer manufacturing company first, and then expand.
So I set off and wrote a business plan:
That all was the original plan for Purism in 2014. Let’s measure the progress: Laptops, check. OS, check. Endorsements, check. Iterate, check. Phone campaign, check. App store, check… And starting in 2019 – the year of ethical services bundle (coming soon) and of the delivery of the Librem 5 phone.
2019, the year my children will own a mobile phone that protects them.
2019, the year I will have accomplished a major goal I set out to, nearly 5 years ago.
2019, the year we spread technological social good from tens-of-thousands to magnitudes more.