Tim Berners-Lee joins Proton advisory board amid privacy criticism

9 Sep 2021

Tim Berners-Lee. Image: Paul Clarke/Wikimedia Commons

The privacy-focused company is facing criticism for handing over IP details on a climate activist to Swiss authorities.

World wide web inventor Tim Berners-Lee is joining the advisory board of privacy-focused software company Proton.

The move comes at a time when the company’s mail service, ProtonMail, is under fire for handing over a user’s IP information to Swiss authorities under legal obligations.

Berners-Lee, who is an avowed proponent of internet privacy, is joining Proton’s board to support its aim to build an internet where privacy is the default.

“I’m delighted to join Proton’s advisory board and support Proton on their journey,” he said. “I am a firm supporter of privacy, and Proton’s values to give people control of their data are closely aligned to my vision of the web at its full potential.”

Proton founder and CEO Andy Yen said that his company’s desire to create an internet that serves the interest of all people is shared by Berners-Lee, whom he worked with while he was a research scientist at CERN.

“Having Sir Tim join our advisory board is a nod to our shared past at CERN, where we conceived the initial idea for ProtonMail, and our future. When Sir Tim invented the World Wide Web, he created a new medium through which people could connect with each other. It changed the world.”

Berners-Lee founded the World Wide Web Consortium in 1994, an international community where member organisations, full-time staff and the public come together to make web standards.

Through his World Wide Web Foundation, he has also recently put together a Contract for the Web calling on governments, companies and the public to ensure the web is a safe, free and open platform for all.

“The power of the web to transform people’s lives, enrich society and reduce inequality is one of the defining opportunities of our time,” Berners-Lee said at the contract’s launch in 2019.

“But if we don’t act now, and act together, to prevent the web being misused by those who want to exploit, divide and undermine, we are at risk of squandering that potential.”

‘We must follow Swiss laws’

But controversy has been brewing this week over Proton’s handling of user data.

On Monday (6 September), Yen wrote in a blog post that Proton had received a “legally binding” order that it could not appeal from Swiss authorities to collect and hand over IP information on a climate activist.

“Due to Proton’s strict privacy, we do not know the identity of our users, and at no point were we aware that the targeted users were climate activists,” he wrote. “We only know that the order for data from the Swiss government came through channels typically reserved for serious crimes.”

In a Twitter thread on the same day, Yen shared some thoughts on the incident, calling the use of legal tools for serious crimes in this instance “deplorable”.

One of ProtonMail’s key selling points is that “encrypted emails cannot be shared with third parties”. Yen clarified in the blog post that, “Under no circumstances can our encryption be bypassed, meaning emails, attachments, calendars, files, etc cannot be compromised by legal orders.”

He added that the Switzerland-based company “does not give data to foreign governments” and only complies with “legally binding orders from Swiss authorities”.

Yen said Proton will be making updates to its website to make the company’s obligations clearer in cases of criminal prosecution and apologised if this was not already clear. “As a Swiss company, we must follow Swiss laws,” he wrote.

Updated, 9.15am, 10 September 2021: A previous version of this article stated that, “The company is facing backlash for handing over data on a climate activist to Swiss authorities despite claiming its emails are fully encrypted.” This was corrected and further details were added to clarify that Proton shared IP information with Swiss authorities and that its encrypted emails cannot be compromised by legal orders. 

Tim Berners-Lee image: Paul Clarke/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Vish Gain is a journalist with Silicon Republic