“Nobody elected Mark [Zuckerberg] or Jack [Dorsey] to be the arbiters of truth in America,” declares a man over a chorus of triumphant horns. “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!”
That’s the sales pitch for the “Freedom Phone,” a $500 smartphone aimed at the MAGA crowd. Just as we saw with Gab, Parler, and Voat, the Freedom Phone is the latest attempt to build an alternate tech platform for right-wingers, but this time with a smartphone instead of social media. When the phone was announced back in March, its tagline was “a phone made for conservatives, by conservatives.” The device is being hawked by Erik Finman, the self-described “world’s youngest bitcoin millionaire.” The phone is supposed to ship in August.
The Freedom Phone’s feature set is about what you would expect. The company (which seems to also be called “Freedom Phone”) claims to have made an “uncensorable app store” that won’t ban Gab and Parler the way Google and Apple did. “FreedomOS” is a “free-speech first” operating system that the company claims to have developed, and it says the hardware is “comparable to the best smartphones on the market.” Based on the information that Freedom Phone has released so far, almost none of that seems to be true.
The phone has so many red flags that it’s difficult to know where to start. The website lists almost no information about the device itself. There’s the name, a picture, and a price, but there’s no spec sheet of any kind. This is a $500 phone, and its website gives you no indication of what you’re actually buying. The front page of the website looks normal, but every button that should say something like “learn more” and link to more information instead says, “Buy it now.” There are 10 “buy it now” links placed all over the front of the website—and almost no important information about the phone. Plenty of manufacturers publish incomplete teaser pages for upcoming phones, but they don’t collect the full retail price from customers without providing detailed spec information first.
Finman talked to The Daily Beast about the phone and admitted that his supposedly patriotic device was manufactured by Umidigi, a Chinese tech company. Our best guess is that the phone is a rebranded Umidigi A9 Pro, which you can buy for about $120. Without a spec list, which just about every other smartphone manufacturer on Earth provides, we’re left with the impression that the hardware doesn’t match the price tag.
Anyone buying a Freedom Phone is basically doing it sight unseen. You’d better really trust this upstart phone manufacturer because if you don’t like what you receive, you’re out of luck. The FAQ states, “If the device is already opened, we do not offer returns at this time.” Other manufacturers stand behind their products.
The “uncensorable app store” is… the Play Store?
Calling up some turnkey manufacturers in China and having them produce a phone isn’t a ton of work, but running your own app store is significantly more difficult. You need an account system, servers, and a way for developers to upload apps. You also need to keep the ecosystem running for years. The Freedom Phone company claims it will do that, saying, “We built our own app store that is completely uncensored. If an app you love has been banned from the mainstream app stores, you can still download it on ours because we don’t ban apps, period.”
You don’t ban apps, period? Even if they contain malware, porn, or illegal content?
And while the Freedom Phone company provides almost no information about the device, various conservative Internet personalities have posted hands-on videos of the phone, and it does not look like the Freedom Phone company has built an app store at all.
As pointed out by XDA’s Mishaal Rahman on Twitter, the phone’s “PatriApp” Store appears to be no more than a rebranded Aurora Store, an open source client for the Play Store. This isn’t an alternative app store like F-Droid or the Amazon App Store—Aurora connects to Google’s Play Store servers and is the Play Store app catalog; it just uses an alternate client. Sure enough, videos like this one show that the app store has all the mainstream Google Play apps you would expect, like YouTube, Google Photos, Instagram, Facebook, Netflix, Spotify, Snapchat, and more. It would be possible to rig up the open source Aurora client to connect to something other than the Google app store, but the presence of so many major app vendors indicates that the Freedom Phone is simply piping in the Play Store. The only other (much less likely) explanation is piracy.
The video presenters don’t seem to understand that they’re looking at the Play Store, and they all claim they’re using the “uncensorable” Freedom Phone app store. None of the spokespeople have shown how to download a banned app from the supposedly uncensored store. One reason Freedom Phone can promise not to censor anything is that it doesn’t control the Play Store.
As far as getting “censored” apps onto the Freedom Phone, the plan seems to be to preload them. The phone ships with apps for right-wing outlets and services like Newsmax, OANN, Parler, and Rumble. You won’t be able to update these apps through the Aurora Play Store client, but if they’re just web links, that probably doesn’t matter.
Finman says the “FreedomOS” operating system is “our own blend of AOSP, LineageOS, GrapheneOS, and our personal development as well.” FreedomOS certainly seems to have cribbed most of the apps and artwork from LineageOS, the Android community’s biggest open source Android distribution. You’ll also spot microG, which is a Google Play Services replacement for Google-less phones. Normally, Google’s Android phones run many services through Google, like location, push messaging, and more; the client for those features is the proprietary Play Services. MicroG is a reimplementation of these APIs and can pipe them into a different service for something like /e/ OS, which provides its own cloud servers. It’s not clear what’s going on with the Freedom Phone. It has the Play Store and can download Google apps. Is there an alternative cloud service?
Plenty of payment problems
Watching the Freedom Phone website over the past few days has been a thrill. The company has continually changed what payment processors are available and has modified its checkout flow several times. Digging through Archive.org and comparing the website launch payment list to the current one tells an interesting story. Apple Pay, Google Pay, Venmo, PayPal, Discover, and several other payment solutions were supported, but now the site only accepts Amazon Pay or Shopify’s normal checkout procedure.
For some reason, the site briefly shifted its entire checkout process from Shopify to WooCommerce Monday night (H/T @relationsatwork), and while Shopify was set up to accept only a single discount code, WooCommerce was not. Myriad conservative personalities are pushing this phone with custom $50 discount codes, and by using a few easy-to-guess ones (MAGA, Trump2024, etc.), some clever shoppers were able to do some extreme couponing to get the $500 phone processed for $0, with only the $20 shipping-and-handling fee charged to their cards.
It’s hard to believe the company will actually ship the phones for that price, but it did process a few $20 orders (including ours). If the phone shows up, we’ll let you know.
Listing image by Freedom Phone