April 8, 2024

Mistakes I made using ProtonMail (Proton AG)

The problem isn’t the mistakes

I subscribed for a paid ProtonMail account back in 2017. While it seemed a good move back then, I’ve learned along the way that it was a mistake.

Which is fine.

The problem is not making mistake. We learn through trials and errors. Step by step.

The problem is whether we can see our mistakes and then walk out freely once we’ve realised we made a mistake. Whether we can keep learning.

With ProtonMail, I realised I was stuck. I was difficult for me to move on. I could not keep learning. I think that is bad. First I explain why, then I list practicalities of how I got stuck.

ProtonMail is a glebe

While the owner of ProtonMail had made it easy for me to take the step of adopting ProtonMail; they did not make it as easy for me to move on. In hindsight, I realise taking a step into the field of ProtonMail undermined my ability to keep learning. It was fine at first, but, once I realised I had made a mistake using ProtonMail, and wanted to move, I realised I was stuck.

That is why I call ProtonMail a digital glebe1: a sphere you can hardly walk out from, a sphere where you can’t own the tools you use. As much as you pay, and as much as Proton AG (the owner of ProtonMail) makes you feel that you are part of it, none of Proton AG is yours - including your email address. The assets of Proton AG remain the property of the owner of Proton AG. You have no say. You are stuck, at the mercy of Proton AGs management. You have no agency, no ownership. You can only use Proton’s tools in a way that the owner of Proton AG constrain you to do so. And part of these constraints undermined your ability to walk out, thus to keep learning. Once you walk in onto Proton AGs glebe, you are stuck.

I am not saying you should own everything you use, but, that you want to be able to learn from usage of tools you adopt - and be free to walk out2. Not use tools provided on a glebe.

If we can see that entering glebes undermine our ability to learn, we might want to maintain agency (collectively or not) over the tools we can exist without3.

We can hardly communicated - thus exist4 - without email addresses. If we can see this, we might not want to host our mailbox (or any other digital tools) on a glebe5.

That is why I am telling others not to use ProtonMail: because it is a glebe.

How not to end up a glebe

At the time when I adopted ProtonMail, I thought it was good for me”. Thinking so was a mistake: I don’t know what’s good for me. As Taleb puts it (I paraphrase): we are much better at knowing what’s bad for us than what’s good for us. So the question I ask myself now that I realise that I don’t know” and that my next steps will be mistakes is: will this digital tool I am adopting right now undermine or foster my ability to move on to a next iteration? In other words: will I be free to keep learning or will I entangle myself onto a glebe (a place where I will get stuck under the coercion of others)?

ProtonMail is a glebe in the sense that it undermined my ability to walk out, it jeopardized my ability to take that next step; by conveying the message that: it [emailing, encryption i.a.] is complicated, Proton AG will do it for you”. That’s bad. Kant and many others warned us: be wary of the agents who tell you it is complicated”.

I am not saying email, encryption or whatever is easy obviously, or that a company can’t make money by helping others doing something that is complicated obviously. That is not the question. The question is: is the provider of a service or a tool restricting users’ ability to learn or prompting them to learn?

An agent can provide a service or a good while encouraging users to enlighten themselves, to learn, and to make it easy for them to walk out”. Or an agent can restrict users ability. In Kantian terms, that is the following question: is a purveyor keeping its users in a position of minority, or encouraging them to depart immaturity? The latter certainly think that nudging users on their glebe is better for business or generating revenues. This is wrong; but that is another discussion6.

I believe it is bad practice for an agent (e.g. Proton AG) to prevent someone from learning.

I am not saying Proton AG is not teaching anything to users. It does. The question is: does Proton AG encourage users to take that next step to keep learning? Or, does Proton AG hinder that next step, telling users it is complicated”?

I don’t know. All I can say is that I found it difficult to take that next step once I had entangled myself on Proton AGs glebe. In that sense, I hope that this blog post can convey the idea that what matter is taking care of our ability to move on onto the next iteration of our learning path.

Next time I pick a new tool, I will ask: is this agent (purveyor) trying to herd me onto a glebe, or is he willing to facilitate my next step and help me move on?


Below is a more practical discussion on what made it hard for me to end my paid subscription - and to walk out from ProtonMail. Ending my ProtonMail subscription wasn’t just a matter of clicking unsubscribe’. Disentangling myself from ProtonMail’s glebe7 dragged on for 2 years; mostly because I postpones tackling the task of disentangling.

I finally managed to end my subscription this week.

Using pm.me: a domain name I can’t own yet must pay for if I want to keep using it

First mistake I made: I started to use the pm.me domain name as soon as I subscribed in 2017. I used it as my main identifier for 5 years; to create other accounts for example e.g. banks, insurance, etc, and interact with administrations. It was fine as long as I was happy and paying for ProtonMail. What I omitted to take into account is that using ProtonMail is just one step along the way. One day I would want to move on (pathemata matemata). It was not that easy to downgrade.


Once you switch back to a gratis8 plan, you can no longer send emails from ; you can still receive emails on , however, you can only send emails from . It might be fine for emailing friends, but for some others, for example insurance company, the person emailing from the address isn’t the same as the person emailing from .

The pm.me domain name is the property of Proton AG (a private company owned by a few). That was a mistake to use an email address with a domain name I don’t own or have no agency over

Note: you can own a domain name that you use for your email address, obviously, or you can use a domain name you own collectively, through a cooperative; see: https://yctct.com/email-providers; people are often mistaken to think that the alternative is to do things ourselves, as individual. This is not. You don’t have to set things up yourselves, you can just join a group of people who are already doing it: a cooperative.

Creating additional email addresses with the same identifier

When I subscribed I unlocked’ the option to create additional email addresses (with the domain name that Proton AG owns) with a unique ProtonMail identifier9.

That was a bad idea.

To keep sending and receiving emails on these additional email addresses; I had to keep paying.

Again, these are email addresses are under a domain name I don’t own, yet have to keeping paying for if I want to use them. That is stupid.

Paying for stuff you don’t own is a trap. Another example is e-books or music under DRM.

I could not downgrade until I disabled these extra email addresses.

Storing data on ProtonMail’s glebe10

The gratis plan allows for a maximum of 1GB of storage. I had accumulated more than 2GB of emails. ProtonMail does not offer a way to bulk delete All Mail’. This postpone the time it took for me to downgrade to gratis. I was stuck on ProtonMail’s glebe because I had to delete ~7,000 emails page by page; that is deleting emails in batch of ~20.

I used this script11 to delete all my emails at once. Running the script through took about 3-4 hours.

Before deleting all my emails, I used mbsync to download them all. I can now search, browse and read all emails I received to my ProtonMail addresses locally with notmuch and Mutt12.

Note: ProtonMail also offers a command-line tool to download all your emails. It is gratis (as of March 2024).

Using IMAP

I can no longer use IMAP now that I have stop paying. I can no longer do emailing locally, offline, using my own tools, etc13. I am forced to use the web app.

This also forces me to use JavaScript; you might not want to allow JavaScript in your browser14.

Generating a PGP key on Proton AGs server

I generated a key pair on ProtonMail server, which public key I sent to some people.

As of today, I would not imagine using a PGP key pair I did not generate (1) myself, (2) locally. And obviously I would not imagine storing my private key on the computer of someone else.

I can no longer use the PGP key pair I generated on ProtonMail’s server.


How to do email then?

As of March 2024, I’d suggest using one of these providers: Cooperatives & non-profits offering email addresses and mailboxes; I usually also tell people to buy their own domain name. I know for some it is not easy, or they feel it is not worth their time, or worth the effort. The point of owning your domain name is that is easier to switch provider (I could have used ProtonMail with my own domain name; quitting ProtonMail would have been a lot easier). With your own domain name, you can switch provider without changing email address. You don’t have to update your account identifiers or update your contacts with a new email address each time you switch providers.

Ending note

I always keep in mind that I don’t know” and that I will keep making mistakes, and so that the step I am taking, the new tools I using are an iteration amongst many future. I’ll have to move. I try to minimize the number of switch by adopting old programme (see: https://yctct.com/old).

With ProtonMail, I made the mistake of entangling myself. Now, when I adopt a new tool, the first question I ask is: will I be able to walk out freely? Will I be able to move on, or am I entangling myself on a glebe?15

  1. For a definition see: https://technofeudalism.fyi↩︎

  2. To keep learning you have to maintain agency over the constraints of your milieu - but that’s a longer discussion.↩︎

  3. An idea I got from Gael Giraud↩︎

  4. We can exist without technique — Stiegler↩︎

  5. That does not mean you have to do it yourself, you can join a cooperative; see https://yctct.com/email-providers↩︎

  6. keeping people into minority makes systems fragile; La Boétie et al.↩︎

  7. https://technofeudalism.fyi↩︎

  8. Not to confuse with free’ https://yctct.com/free↩︎

  9. that is the email address I used to create your ProtonMail account↩︎

  10. https://technofeudalism.fyi↩︎

  11. I found and modified↩︎

  12. https://yctct.com/mutt-gpg-mbsync-msmtp-notmuch↩︎

  13. https://yctct.com/mutt-gpg-mbsync-msmtp-notmuch↩︎

  14. https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/javascript-trap.html, https://arxiv.org/pdf/1905.01051.pdf↩︎

  15. https://technofeudalism.fyi↩︎

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