What a great formula for a grift: Find some gullible idiots who wish to “free” themselves of the tyranny of Big Tech, and get them to use your platform or buy your equipment. For the last year, various MAGA types have tried to set up alternatives to Twitter—most notably the clown shows of Parler last year and Gettr this year. And now we have the advent of the Freedom Phone, which promises to be “Completely. Uncensored.” and comes pre-loaded with apps that freedom-lovers love to love, such as Parler and Rumble.
The device has been criticized for failing to deliver on the promise of breaking its users free of Big Tech. In fact, the phone offers very little by way of “freedom” except freeing you of an excess $500 that’s been weighing down your pockets. The Freedom Phone itself is a clunky product designed to fleece naïve consumers who don’t understand how they are being exploited and productized by the tech industry (for a primer on this subject be sure to watch Netflix’s The Social Dilemma).
One of the criticisms of the device is that contrary to its makers’ assertions, it’s actually “just running Android.” But this criticism is either misguided or offered in bad faith. It’s true that this device is running a flavor of the Android operating system called LineageOS. Yet that in and of itself doesn’t say anything about whether the device frees you from your Googlian overlords. Yes, Android is owned by Google, but once you grab an open source version—as LineageOS is—and start tinkering, you can build pretty much anything you want and Google doesn’t get to monitor you or collect your data just because your phone is running Android.
To put it another way: Android is a big toolbox that allows developers to build all sorts of software; it doesn’t say anything, either good or bad, about the Freedom Phone that it’s running Android. Indeed—if you plan on making a smartphone, that’s almost your only option.
So no, the problem with the Freedom Phone isn’t its OS. Rather, the problem is that it exists in an ecosystem where the user’s options for having a useful device without connecting it to services that deprive it of its “freedom” are exceedingly small.
Still, say you decide to buy one. Congratulations, you’re the proud owner of a new Freedom Phone, “free” from Google’s intrusive monitoring and censorship. But it’s also free of most of the reasons you’d bother to own a phone and keep it charged and connected to the internet in the first place. You want email? You want to have your phone guide you to your next insurrection-planning meeting? You want a calendar to put that meeting on? You want a contact list that is shared with your computer? You want to make a handy shopping list (of groceries or, say, materials for protest signs and Molotov cocktails)? You want to do some research on just how bad critical race theory is? The minute you try, you’ll notice that your phone simply isn’t as useful as it would be if it were connected to some of the services Big Tech provides. If you want to do those things, you’ve got to start installing Gmail and Facebook and the other apps that, well, defeat the purpose of having such a device.
You see—the phone isn’t the problem. In fact, you can turn any Android phone into a “freedom” phone by signing out of your Gmail account, turning off your location sharing, and then only using the apps that swear on their mother’s graves never to track you (and they might be lying).
All snickering aside, if the Freedom Phone were better executed, and perhaps marketed less to the right wing than to those with a general, both-sides-of-the-aisle concern about the growing social and political dominance of the tech giants, it might conceivably be a pretty resounding shot across the bow of smartphone retailers. After all, this is a device that’s as disengaged from the primary culprits of digital dictatorship as it can be while still being minimally useful.
If the makers of the Freedom Phone genuinely cared about freedom, they would not be focusing just on the right, but trying to tap into the widespread desire to use technology that doesn’t exploit us or take advantage of our proclivity to become addicted to outrage. This is an admirable sentiment. If there really is a market for such a thing, perhaps someone of better faith and more competence can come and service this market. For now, though, the Freedom Phone is a gimmick being sold to people who don’t know any better, and its purpose is not to reduce political anger but to put it front and center.
All that said, if you’re going to buy a Freedom Phone, please tell them I sent you so that I can get a commission!