The 'Freedom Phone' Explained

"Big Tech companies hold a monopoly on public communication and the dissemination of information, and they are abusing that power. Nobody elected Mark [Zuckerberg] or Jack [Dorsey] to be the arbiters of truth in America. Yet they still thought it was ok to ban a sitting president from their platforms. If they censor the president, they'll censor anyone. Imagine if Mark Zuckerberg censored MLK or Abraham Lincoln. The course of history would have been altered forever. There's a reason why the founding fathers made the right to free speech the very first."

So goes the sales pitch from Erik Finman, the "world's youngest bitcoin millionaire," as he puts it on his Twitter account. The swelling background music, something like a royalty-free orchestration of marching brass and triumphant strings, suits a video that, in another context, would be a "Saturday Night Live" parody. No matter that the First Amendment has to do with preventing Congress from making laws either supporting or prohibiting religious or press-related activities (per Congress' governmental website) — in other words, nothing to do with corporations mediating content on platforms.

Finman is, in fact, peddling a phone. "Comparable to the best smartphones on the market," with a "superfast processor," its own OS (ClearOS Mobile), its own OS store (PatriAPP — yes, really), and its own tracker-stopping privacy guard ("Trust"), all for $499.99, as the Freedom Phone says.

A politically driven tool of dubious forthrightness

First off: investing in, researching, prototyping, developing, finding parts suppliers, and obtaining licenses for an entirely independent smartphone? That's pretty impressive and dedicated in and of itself — if indeed that's what the Freedom Phone's creator, Erik Finman, did (more on that later) — especially when plenty of us might not have the drive to make some avocado toast at lunchtime. At minimum, there seems to be zero doubt on the part of Finman as to the phone's viability as an in-demand product in the U.S. market. But we'd all be smart to remember that's what it is: a product.

It's the political angle that makes the Freedom Phone troubling, especially when it's often those of conservative leanings who want politics out of things like tech — which is exactly what the Freedom Phone goes ahead and does. On Finman's initial Twitter ad he states, "we don't ban apps, period," but it was the Trump administration that wanted to ban Chinese-owned apps Tik-Tok and WeChat out of "national security concerns," per the New York Times

Also, even though Amazon shut down Parler servers earlier this year, this happened because the app was used to "express hatred and threaten violence that culminated in Wednesday's riots at the U.S. Capitol" on January 6, 2021, per NBC News. This is quite different from any willy-nilly claims of "tech overlords ... violating your privacy, censoring your speech," as the phone's ad goes.

A rehashed device rebranded from another phone

The Freedom Phone website reveals no model numbers, no manufacturer information, and nothing beyond bare-bones specs like "1.8 GHz 8 Cores." This tells us nothing of the product's origin, development, suppliers, parts, or really anything at all. If folks are worried about things like security, trackers on a personal product that will house and push out all of your most confidential information, such lack of specificity should be more alarming than anything else. Besides, it still uses all available satellite networks, including those used by Verizon, AT&T, and other major carriers. Ars Technica's review of the Freedom Phone says it "has so many red flags that it's difficult to know where to start." 

At first, it seemed that the Freedom Phone was merely a re-branded, low-quality UMIDIGI A9 Pro, but it's actually even worse. Irony of ironies, such phones are Chinese-made, unlocked devices you can buy for as low as $150 on sites like Ali Express. This makes Erik Finman akin to Trader Joe's (but with less organic granola), which repackages white-label products using its own branding. The phone's OS is actually LineageOS, a "free and open-source operating system for various devices, based on the Android mobile platform." Its "uncensorable app store" is a duped Aurora Store, an open-source client for Google Play. And the right-wing apps it ships with — Newsmax, OANN, Parler, and Rumble — can't be updated, let alone supported within the long-term ecosystem of a typical, multi-generational smartphone.

A product that magnifies division, not engenders civil liberties

So what's the lesson here? That a guy, Erik Finman, is scamming a disgruntled public whom he believes will swallow palatably packaged half-truths, which is exactly the accusation such buyers might fling at their political opponents? Perhaps. Is Finman a true believer? Perhaps, as well. Or is the whole thing just some big shoulder-shrugging misunderstanding? We'll let you decide.

And does the claim "we don't ban apps, period" not extend, as Ars Technica asks, to "malware, porn, or illegal content"? We ask that last point to illustrate that every person, whether lawmakers or general citizens, including those who comprise companies, are always making value judgments about what to say and not say, allow, and not allow. This isn't censorship. It's morality.

Taking all this into consideration, the Freedom Phone definitely looks more and more like a product that will, as the Grand Forks Herald puts it, "keep conservatives isolated, angry, and paranoid, and ... monetize that anger and paranoia." It could allow individuals who claim victimization to cry "victim" even louder, no matter how valid the claims. And as the Freedom Phone website's currently sold-out status illustrates — "Due to overwhelming demand new orders will ship in November 2021" — plenty of folks have not only bought into it, but bought it.

This is unfortunate because a device that creates a perfect echo chamber certainly doesn't constitute any magic cure for a divided public.