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Meet the Startup with a Social Purpose: Purism

Learn how Purism is working to develop an ecosystem of devices, software, and services that protect user freedom, privacy, and security.


Over the years, various Silicon Valley startups have had their ethics come into question. Perhaps the issue is that their core focus is profitability, which incentivizes the wrong kinds of behaviors. But, what if there was another way to build a startup that put social goals above those purely related to financial gain?

We have found a startup built on such a model. From devices to software and apps, Purism is making ethical alternatives to mainstream services. In this article, you'll learn how they are working to develop an ecosystem that protects user freedom, privacy, and security.

Purism is a Social Purpose Corporation (SPC)

It goes without saying that the core mission of all standard corporations is to maximize profit. The converse of this is a non-profit organization. We are all familiar with these. However, there is another type of legal entity in the US that you may not have heard of; a social purpose corporation (SPC). This type enables but does not require, considering social or environmental issues in decision making.

One fascinating SPC case study is Purism, which is focused on building software and hardware that respects and protects user privacy, security, and freedom. Their offerings are ethical alternatives to those offered by Big Tech (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple, and Microsoft). If you're confused about why anyone would want to have an alternative to Big Tech, then read on to learn more.

What Makes Purism Unique

Many companies in the IT industry build products aimed at protecting privacy, security, and freedom.

  • The IT security industry is vast and sophisticated.

  • In recent years, privacy has become a hot topic, and many companies have been emphasizing their commitment to it in their marketing.

  • The free and open source software (FOSS) movement has also been growing as it offers many advantages over the traditional closed approach.

Purism's specialty is its steadfast commitment to advancing all three of these aspects together and designs all of its products and services to empower its users.

A Librem 15 laptop by Purism

Why Purism Chose an SPC

Purism sells products and has profit. It leverages lines-of-credit, accounts receivable, and investment vehicles. These all require a corporate status that charitable organizations do not have. Thus it was not feasible to have Purism be a non-profit organization because of it.

Thus, in February 2017 Purism became a Social Purpose Corporation with defined social purposes that claim priority over making a profit.

Giving Users Control Over their Hardware

Most laptops today require specialized tools and knowledge to basic part upgrades or replacements. Several vendors seek to control who can upgrade or repair the hardware. Their computers are made with unique components and cannot accept third-party parts.

Purism goes in the opposite direction, making their laptops so that you can remove the case without specialized tools, quickly get access to the internals, and replace them yourself.

The underside lid handle and screws on a Librem 13 laptop

They provide hardware kill switches to let users control the webcam, microphone, and WiFi hardware without special software.

A hardware "kill switch" on a Librem 15 laptop

Giving Users Control Over their Software

Vendors are notorious for using proprietary software to lock customers into their ecosystems. This means that you are entirely at their mercy when it comes to new features and security updates. If the vendor changes a function, there's nothing you can do. Even if you find a better alternative, often there is no easy way to migrate over to it.

Purism devices ship with only FOSS installed, and upgrades are free of charge. Furthermore, there is no lock-in, and users can change any piece of software. Controlling the software lets users also control their hardware.

Giving Users Control Over their Security

When vendors work to build a secure system, the result is one which gives them full control and conveniently locks you into them. For example, vendors design systems where every OS must get their approval before it can boot. Their solution for secure communications consists of proprietary software and protocols they control.

In contrast, Purism has designed each of their devices' security measures so that the user is in control. For example, their PureBoot solution lets users control all of the keys that protect the boot process. Users can install and use any OS without 'Purism's approval or disable boot security. Purism's communications apps use auditable FOSS and end-to-end encryption. The user holds all of the keys, meaning that no one can snoop on their communication.

Giving Users Control Over their Phones

The smartphone market is dominated by Google's Android operating system, which runs on a broad variety of handsets. Coming in at second place is Apple, which has a closed ecosystem comprising of both devices, apps, software, and cloud infrastructure.

Phones are challenging to repair and upgrade - even more than devices such as laptops. Some vendors exercise control over what peripherals (like headphones) you might attach, the software you're allowed to install, and which OS you can run. They also retain control over all security protections in the OS.

We recently saw two high profile cases of this kind of control:

  • Apple removed Facebook's internal iPhone apps;

  • Google revoked Huawei's access to OS updates.

Purism is preparing to launch its own smartphone, the Librem 5. It will run FOSS at all levels, from the boot firmware to the OS. The phone's back can be removed to gain access to its innards when required. You can also expand storage using a microSD card. It also includes three mechanical switches that disable the cameras, microphone, WiFi/Bluetooth, and cellular modem. These "kill switches" work at the hardware level so that even if your device was hacked, you have control.

Giving Users Control Over their Services

Have you ever wondered why you have so many different messenger apps on your phone? Each operator is working to keep you within their ecosystem. Meanwhile, they track and record your activity for advertising purposes and selling to third parties.

Purism recently launched an alternative that is based on FOSS that uses open-protocols. This means there is no lock-in effect since you can switch to an alternative that uses the same protocols. For convenience, they offer it under a central brand, Librem One, with a single username.

Since they Librem One is run a subscription model, they don't collect user data, track, or show ads. And, since it's built with FOSS, all code is openly available for anyone to audit.

Giving Users Control Over their Social Media

In most countries, social media is dominated by Facebook, Instagram (owned by Facebook), Twitter, and YouTube. Since these platforms are monetized by advertising, they are incentivized to invade your privacy and control what you see. They train their algorithms to show you content that will be most likely to catch your attention - especially that which gets people outraged. On the other hand, they exercise censorship to try and make their platforms seem like a safe place for advertisers to run ads without risking their brand reputation.

As a result, they run large teams of low-paid workers to moderate content. These teams are augmented by AI systems that will eventually replace them altogether.

As part of the Librem One suite, Purism released Librem Social, which is based on the decentralized and FOSS-powered network, Mastodon. Since it doesn't run advertising and is subscription-funded, Purism can take a neutral and balanced stance on moderation. Users only see the content they opt into, and it is displayed in a reverse-chronological feed.

Purism will continue to contribute to the Mastodon project. However, if users dislike Purism's approach, they are free to join another Mastodon instance elsewhere, which will still have access to the "Fediverse;" the network of interconnected Mastodon instances. So, there is no monopoly in the way that a closed platform such as Facebook or Twitter works.

What's Next?

Purism is a young and ambitious startup that is serving a rapidly growing number of people who are aware of the issues surrounding privacy, security, and freedom in today's digital landscape. Their user community is quite niched currently, however, we can see that they are building a strong track record and working towards offering a comprehensive offering that provides a viable alternative to Big Tech.


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