Ever since the rise of Donald Trump, conservative dissatisfaction with the technology industry has skyrocketed, with Trump and other Republican politicians frequently accusing “big tech” of bias and censorship towards conservatives. This tension existed even before Trump was suspended from Twitter following the riot at the U.S. Capitol building on January 6.
This has manifested itself as the launch of a series of social networks, including Gab, Parler, and most recently Gettr, geared towards serving as conservative alternatives to social networks like Facebook and Twitter. However, those networks have frequently run into trouble. The type of content moderation their backers claim to disdain in the mainstream social media companies is necessary for running any type of functional social network—especially if a person doesn’t want the network overrun by Nazis and/or child pornography.
Now, an entrepreneur has launched a hardware counterpart to those products. Unfortunately, there are indications that it’s a scam.
The product is called the Freedom Phone. Its website boasts a giant, waving American flag and the slogan “Completely. Uncensored.”
“The Freedom Phone is a free speech and privacy-first focused phone. With features like tracking blockers and an uncensorable app store,” the product’s website says. Carrying a price tag of $499.99, the Freedom Phone ships in August. It works with all major carriers and, ironically for a product that’s supposed to combat big tech, its website includes share buttons for both Facebook and Twitter.
The phone boasts an “Uncensorable App Store” called PatriApp, and comes preloaded with apps favored by conservatives, such as Parler, DuckDuckGo, Rumble and Newsmax.
“We want to create a future where free communication is not banned by Big Tech,” the website says. “We want to bring back free speech. Forever.”
The man behind the Freedom Phone is Erik Finman, who calls himself the “youngest Bitcoin millionaire.” In a tweet this week, Finman calls the Freedom Phone “the first major pushback on the Big Tech companies that attacked us—for just thinking different.”
The phone has been endorsed by a list of Trump-adjacent celebrities, like Candace Owens, Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Stone, and Ali Alexander.
However, the Freedom Phone isn’t quite what it claims to be, according to the Daily Beast.
The Freedom Phone “appears to be merely a more expensive rebranding of a budget Chinese phone available elsewhere for a fraction of the Freedom Phone’s price,” according to the Daily Beast. Off-brand phones like this typically do not go for a $500 price tag.
The Freedom Phone is merely a rebranding of a Chinese smartphone called the Umidigi A9 Pro, made by the tech company Umidigi- and it typically costs around $120, according to the Daily Beast. At this time of widespread anti-China sentiment on the right, the Freedom Phone website does not acknowledge anywhere that the product has Chinese ties. Finman told the Beast that the phone is manufactured in Hong Kong, and not mainland China, although Umidigi is headquartered in Shenzhen.
The website does not list tech specs, which is practically unheard of in the era of smartphones. But some people have noticed that it does list “Large Storage. 6inch Screen. Great Camera. Affordable, yet fast.”
The phone runs an operating system called “Freedom OS,” which is a version of Android, the operating system that comes from Google, according to The Daily Beast. Additionally, influencers endorsing the Freedom Phone “make $50 per phone sold,” presumably through a promo code arrangement.
Meanwhile, The Daily Dot looked at the Freedom Phone and described it as “a cheap Chinese Android—and a security nightmare.”
“This device is a drop-shipped customizable Android-based phone,” Matthew Hickey, co-founder of the cybersecurity firm Hacker House, told The Daily Dot. “They can be bought and shipped in bulk from Asia with custom logos and branding so as to give the appearance of a phone that has been designed for a unique purpose.”
Hickey added that the Umidigi phone in particular is “notorious for its poor security.” That’s because it uses processors from MediaTek- a company from Taiwan whose processors are used in smartphones in North Korea.
Also, Freedom Phone has not explained what security measures it has taken to ensure that viruses, malware and other bad apps aren’t available in its app store.
Therefore, it appears that Freedom Phone risks running into the same problems faced by the conservative social networks of the past. Big tech, for all of its faults, has rigorous quality control in place, and also built up its platforms over a long period of time.
XDA Developers also weighed in on the Freedom Phone and its weaknesses.
“Based on the information we’ve seen so far, the Freedom Phone raises too many red flags,” according to the XDA Developers. “It clearly doesn’t offer all the features that Finman claims it does. And the marketing around it only aims to capitalize on the notion that Big Tech is biased against right-wing people in the US, without offering any real solution.”
The editor of XDA Developers, Mishaal Rahman, noticed on Twitter that in a “hands-on” video from Candace Owens that the app store offered was “literally just a rebranded Aurora Store (an OOS front-end for the Google Play Store).”
Another Twitter account noticed that Owens, while endorsing the Freedom Phone, was still tweeting using “Twitter for iPhone.”
Stephen Silver, a technology writer for the National Interest, is a journalist, essayist and film critic, who is also a contributor to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philly Voice, Philadelphia Weekly, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Living Life Fearless, Backstage magazine, Broad Street Review and Splice Today. The co-founder of the Philadelphia Film Critics Circle, Stephen lives in suburban Philadelphia with his wife and two sons. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenSilver.