Free speech is important. Privacy is important. Both are vital to a healthy society and a healthy Internet. Ensuring our ability to do what we want with the technology we purchase, without having our data tracked or sold, is one of the biggest problems facing the tech world today. It’s an ongoing problem and a constant fight, and everyone should work hard to both know and protect their rights both online and with their devices.
On a completely separate subject, the Freedom Phone looks like a colossal grift that preys on people who are technically illiterate and legally ignorant. It smells like a massive, cynical con job designed to overcharge customers by at least 400% while taking advantage of their lack of understanding about how phones work, how the Internet works, and how free speech works.
I’m going to pause here so you can scroll down and comment angrily below. It’s okay, I’ll wait.
Ready to move on? Good.
Personal politics completely aside, this pet project from the “world’s youngest Bitcoin millionaire” seems to offer nothing any other Android phone can’t already do, just with a faux “freedom” bend over it and the assumption that its users have no idea what it means to sideload an app. Whatever you believe and however you vote, it really looks like the Freedom Phone is designed to cynically take advantage of you.
One note before we dive into it: These observations are all based on what has been revealed about the Freedom Phone and what we can glean about its details. We could easily be proven wrong and it might turn out to be a revolutionary privacy-protecting tool that’s a good value, too. However, what we’ve seen so far indicates that, no, it looks like a big politically predatory rip-off.
Big Warning Sign: No Specs
Let’s start from a purely technical, consumer-facing angle. The Freedom Phone seems to have absolutely no tech specs whatsoever. Basic things like CPU, storage capacity, screen resolution, and cellular bands simply are not published anywhere on the Freedom Phone website. According to a press release sent out about the Freedom Phone, it has a 6-inch screen and 128GB of storage. That’s all the details we’ve seen (and the press release, from March, shows a different phone model photo, so even those details might be wrong).
If you’re spending $500 on a phone, you should know what’s running inside it. Period. You don’t have to understand what all the specs are, but the information should be disclosed.
As it stands, it appears that the Freedom Phone is simply a bulk-purchased Chinese Android phone with a light UI skin thrown over the Android OS (see below). Specifically, it seems to be the Umidigi A9 Pro, available from AliExpress.com for $156, and purchasable in bulk from Alibaba for $118 to $135 per phone. The notch matches, the side buttons match, the camera stack matches, everything indicates that it is indeed this phone. One you can buy with raw Android for just over a quarter of the price.
FreedomOS: Android for the Ignorant
That mention of raw Android brings us to the big appeal of the Freedom Phone: FreedomOS and its overwhelming freeness. Yeah, it’s Android. It’s Android with a skin on top. Look at one of the few pictures of what the operating system looks like on the phone. Android default app icons. Android navigation buttons on the bottom. Android status icons on the top. It’s Android.
Maybe FreedomOS really does strip out some of the tracking that Android can do, and has features that preserve your privacy. The problem is that Freedom Phone doesn’t actually explain how it does any of that, and there doesn’t seem to be a single thing the phone can do, from limiting tracking to adding “banned” apps, that you can’t already do with Android. However much you might complain about Google’s handling of personal data or the management of its app store (and there are loads of valid complaints about both), Android is fundamentally an open-source operating system built on a nearly universal system kernel. That means you can basically do anything on it.
Is your favorite service “censored” on the Google Play store? You can load it on your phone pretty easily if you have the APK file (and despite what Freedom Phone might imply, conservative news sources like Newsmax and OAN are available on the Google Play store, along with Telegram and Rumble). Are you worried about your data being tracked? Load some privacy-minded apps like an encrypted email client, an encrypted browser, and a VPN on it (again, those are available on the Google Play store, so you don’t have to wrestle with sideloading). There’s nothing the Freedom Phone can do that you can’t do with Android, so basically you’re spending $500 to get Parler preloaded. That’s it. Also, Parler’s own website has a link to simply download the APK directly to your phone, so it’s actually easier to load than most sideloading.
Guess what? If you’re using cell service at all, especially with data and GPS services…that’s traceable. Like, fundamentally. It’s how the technology works, and nothing can actually prevent that telemetry and bandwidth from being seen by, at the very least, your cellular carrier.
The Price of Freedom
If you don’t know how to sideload an app, or set up and use encryption on your phone, the Freedom Phone might seem appealing. But at that point, it really raises the question of how much your freedom and privacy are actually worth to you, personally.
You’re willing to spend $500 on a phone that claims to offer it? Okay. Is it worth putting in the work to educate yourself on how to hide your digital footprint and load unlisted apps on your phone? Because that’s what really can protect your rights. Learn how encryption works. Learn how to sideload apps that have been “censored.” Teach yourself how to do these things, because whatever your politics it’s that knowledge that’s actually useful in ensuring your freedoms. Don’t rely on a rebadged mystery phone with vague promises of what it can do for you. Educate yourself, and you’ll be able to do everything the Freedom Phone claims it does on any Android phone. There are some great ones for much, much less than the Freedom Phone and you can actually find out their specs.
Don’t let a waving flag and empty rhetoric trick you into paying too much money for a cheap phone with an Android skin. Especially don’t let it trick you into thinking that you can just throw cash at someone and they’ll protect your rights. That kind of thinking is appealing because it’s easy and simple. That kind of thinking will also keep you away from actively trying to educate yourself and learn how to actually protect your rights. Why should you settle for that?