ExpressVPN - Interview with Harold Li

Last updated on December 29, 2019
VPNs are becoming more and more essential in everyday life. With regulation the US changing, enabling ISPs to sell browsing data and allowing government offices to search your history without a warrant, countries blocking various websites (see: China, Russia, and most Middle Eastern countries) or a myriad of reasons, and more and more geo-blocked content, VPNs are now a fact of life. In our continuing series, we interviewed Harold Li, Vice President of ExpressVPN, one of the largest VPN providers around the globe, and got his take on the current situation regarding VPNs.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got your start in the VPN industry? What is your title at ExpressVPN?

I’m vice president at ExpressVPN. I have a long history of working in tech, working with IT and networking infrastructure companies like HP Enterprise and F5 Networks, as well as consumer technology companies like Uber and Spotify. I’ve also been involved in campaigning for civil liberties, so together with my background in tech, that also led to my interest in the VPN industry.

Can you introduce ExpressVPN a bit to our readers? How did ExpressVPN get started and how did it get where it is today?

ExpressVPN was founded 8 years now, and over that time we’ve really seen the demand for consumer VPNs grow. Our founders formed the company to provide people with one easy to way to better protect their privacy and security against a rising tide of mass surveillance, state censorship, and online tracking. We’re now one of the largest consumer VPN providers out there, but I think we’re just getting started. There’s so much work to do on educating internet users, on setting a higher standard for VPNs, and constantly staying ahead of all those trying to encroach on our digital rights.

ExpressVPN is a well-known VPN service, what do you think contributed to ExpressVPN success?

I think it’s important that we consider ourselves advocates for digital rights first and foremost, because that leads us to make the right decisions when it comes to the privacy, security, and overall interests of our customers and the broader public.

That results in a better product and more trusted brand, which has helped us become one of the top VPN providers despite fierce competition. I also think our focus on making sure the product is fast, easy to use, and well supported has made it accessible to a broad audience and been key to keeping our customers loyal year after year.

What sets you apart from your competitors?

I think we’re one of the few VPN companies focused on pushing the whole industry forward and constantly innovating, whereas most providers are just focused on beating the competition and competing on price. For example, on the customer experience front, we were one of the first to introduce 24/7 live chat support, which a few other brands have adopted now.

And on the technical front, our Privacy Research Lab recently released the industry’s first set of leak testing tools, enabling researchers, reviewers, and other third parties to independently test VPNs for privacy and security leaks. 

VPNs need to be a mix of performance and security – how does ExpressVPN achieve this?

Performance and security are not always in conflict, and we believe strongly that our service should deliver the best of both. When there are differences in performance between the different VPNs, it is often driven by a difference in aspects like the quantity and quality of the company’s servers, its optimization technology, quality of the client apps, implementation of VPN protocols, and more.

How would you describe your typical user? Which features are the most important to them?

Generally, customers use VPNs for one or more of the following reasons, some of which overlap:

  • For security: A VPN creates a secure, encrypted tunnel from your computer to the internet. Browse freely knowing you won’t be tracked or monitored by your ISP or by hackers on your Wi-Fi network.
  • For added privacy and anonymity: ExpressVPN IP addresses are shared with thousands of other users, and ExpressVPN doesn’t keep connection or activity logs, making it nearly impossible to trace internet activity back to any single user.
  • To defeat censorship: A VPN adds helps people everywhere connect to the free and open internet, particularly important for those who travel to or live in countries where Google, Facebook, Twitter, and/or other services may be blocked or restricted.
  • To access content: VPNs help remove barriers to the open internet, and that includes content that’s not available in your region.

What are some of the largest security threats to individual internet users? How do you help protect these users?

Unsecured Wi-Fi networks continue to be a major security blindspot for internet users. Almost everyone uses public Wi-Fi networks – such as those at coffee shops, hotels, and airports – but only a very small portion is taking security precautions such as using a VPN.

That makes them extremely vulnerable to man-in-the-middle attacks, which could result in the loss of sensitive information. The secure, encrypted tunnel a VPN provides protects against such attacks. Don’t just take my word for it – everyone from the American FCC to the UK Metropolitan Police recommends using a VPN to protect one’s security when connected to public Wi-Fi

Why is privacy today so important, and what do you think are the primary threats to privacy for ordinary individuals using the internet?

We rely on the internet for every aspect of our lives, and the sum of our online activity and data paints an incredibly detailed, intimate portrait of who we are and what we do. There’s no doubt that governments, businesses, and other organizations are more interested in and committed to tracking that activity and exploiting that data than ever, for power or profit. That’s why it has never been more important for anyone using the internet to be cognizant of the threats to their privacy and to take steps to protect themselves.

What is ExpressVPN’s opinion of data retention?

Ordinary internet users should not be subject to the continuous logging of their online activities by ISPs and governments. Data retention requirements are invasive, violate our right to privacy, and negatively impact other rights including freedom of expression and freedom of association. Large databases of personal information will also inevitably be targets of cyber attacks, significantly increasing privacy risks.

China recently banned VPNs and streaming sites like Netflix and Hulu work diligently to block VPN access – how does ExpressVPN handle these kinds of opponents?

Keeping users connected to what they want, from where they want, is a core part of what we do. Blocking attempts create operational challenges for any VPN company, but we have consistently managed to maintain a reliable level of service for our customers in spite of these challenges.

VPNs are extremely popular throughout Europe and Asia, and now we see that VPNs are really starting to penetrate the US market. Why do you think this is?

A number of events in the past few years have really underlined the importance of online privacy and security for Americans, and they’re taking matters into their own hands with VPNs.

For example, revelations about the NSA’s spy programs, starting with Edward Snowden’s whistleblowing, have led Americans to understand how pervasive mass, warrantless surveillance is. And Congress’ vote in March 2017 to let ISPs sell browsing history was another wake-up call, reminding Americans just how vulnerable their internet data and activity are. Following