When Edward Snowden emailed journalists and activists in July to invite them to a briefing at the Moscow airport during his long stay there, he used the email account “email@example.com” according to one of the invitees. Texas-based Lavabit came into being in 2004 as an alternative to Google’s Gmail, as an email provider that wouldn’t scan users’ email for keywords. Being identified as the provider of choice for the country’s most famous NSA whistleblower led to a flurry of attention for Lavabit and its encrypted email services, fromjournalists, and also, apparently, from government investigators. Lavabit founder Ladar Levison announced Thursday that he’s shutting down the company rather than cooperating with a government investigation (presumably into Snowden).
Lavabit’s website now displays a message about the shutdown, available in full below, along with a request for help paying the legal bill to fight the government in court.
“I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit,” writes Levison. “After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations.”
It’s unclear whether the government has already seized the company’s servers. Levison says that he’s under a gag order and thus can’t discuss the government investigation that he’s been fighting over the last six weeks. Gag orders like that often come with information requests in national security investigations. Nick Merrill of the Calyx Institutefamously spent six years fighting off one of those requests — though the fame only came after the six years were up when he reached a settlement with the government releasing him partially from the gag.
It’s amazing how much the climate in the U.S. has changed that someone like Levison actually feels empowered to write a letter like this one. Merrillfeared being sent to prison if he spoke out publicly about what he felt was an unconstitutional request for a customer’s data.
“I can relate to the difficult choice Mr. Levison is being forced to make, as I made a similar choice in 2004 after I received a National Security Letter demanding information on a client of my ISP, and then spent the better part of a decade challenging the constitutionality of warrantless surveillance in federal court,” says Nick Merrill by email. “It would be one thing if dragnet surveillance was in compliance with the 4th amendment and bedrock American values, and it would be another thing if it was proven to keep us safer. But unfortunately, neither of those is true.”
Presumably, the government is seeking access to Edward Snowden’s email, email metadata, passwords or encryption keys. And presumably, Levison doesn’t want to grant that access.
“I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States,” writes Levison, based on his experience. This message seems to be a loud and clear one. Washington, D.C.-based think tank Information Technology and Innovation Foundation predicts that U.S. cloud companies will lose from $21.5 to $35 billion over the next three years. They admit that it is a “rough guess” based onsurveys about the chilling effects of the NSA leaks on U.S.-based cloud businesses.
Update (8/9/13): Edward Snowden drew attention to other American companies in the Guardian, telling Glenn Greenwald that they should take a page from the Lavabit book to protect their users: “Employees and leaders at Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Yahoo, Apple, and the rest of our internet titans must ask themselves why they aren’t fighting for our interests the same way small businesses are. The defense they have offered to this point is that they were compelled by laws they do not agree with, but one day of downtime for the coalition of their services could achieve what a hundred Lavabits could not.”
Meanwhile, Lavabit’s users are not so pleased with the shutdown. Judging from complaints on the Lavabit Facebook wall — e.g., “Shutting down service with no warning and no chance to migrate is complete BULLSH**.” — they care more about service than principles.
Here’s Levison’s full letter:
My Fellow Users,
I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly ten years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit. After significant soul searching, I have decided to suspend operations. I wish that I could legally share with you the events that led to my decision. I cannot. I feel you deserve to know what’s going on–the first amendment is supposed to guarantee me the freedom to speak out in situations like this. Unfortunately, Congress has passed laws that say otherwise. As things currently stand, I cannot share my experiences over the last six weeks, even though I have twice made the appropriate requests.
What’s going to happen now? We’ve already started preparing the paperwork needed to continue to fight for the Constitution in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. A favorable decision would allow me resurrect Lavabit as an American company.
This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would _strongly_ recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.
Sincerely, Ladar Levison Owner and Operator, Lavabit LLC
Defending the constitution is expensive! Help us by donating to the Lavabit Legal Defense Fund here.