Lavabit shuts up shop to avoid ‘big brother’ encroachments

By Phil Mincher Publisher: APCNews     JOHANNESBURG,

A pervasive new trend is governments forcing internet service providers to be complicit in invasions of their citizens’ privacy.

This development has affected some email providers and other internet intermediaries so much that they have opted to shut down operations before “big brother’’ interferences gather more momentum.

This is the reason for Texas-based encrypted email service provider, Lavabit’s, sudden and swift closure. Its owner, Ladar Levison, made a public statement last month on Lavabit’s website stating: “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.”

Although Levison has been tight-lipped about the details leading him to this decision, many pundits and journalists have read between the lines and surmised that the United States (US) government issued Levison with a national security letter (a legal attempt to force him to hand over data/information) and accompanying court order. This seems likely given one of Lavabit’s 350,000 account holders was Edward Snowden.

But it could be much deeper and grimier still. News blog, Techdirt, recently wrote that NBC News had been informed by a reliable source that ‘’the decision to shut down Lavabit was over something much bigger than just looking at one individual’s information – since it appears that Lavabit has cooperated in the past on such cases.’’ Instead, it seems the US authorities issued Levison with a court order compelling him to assist in a wide-ranging surveillance assignment which would require him to provide information on all Lavabit users.

Levison’s decision to shut down Lavabit, therefore, appears to have been a pre-emptive measure to avoid complying with the court order. As a result, he has now been threatened with contempt of court charges for shutting down the business, rather than assisting the US authorities.

Now Levison is in the midst of a potentially ground-breaking legal battle, not only defending the charges laid against him, but challenging what the US government can and cannot do: “The information technology sector of our country deserves a legislative mandate that will allow us to provide private and secure services so our customers, both here and abroad, don’t feel they are being used as listening posts for an American surveillance network,’’ he told The Guardian.

The former Lavabit owner, it must be said, is doing tremendously well in getting his message out to the masses without breaching the terms of his gag order – his fund, set up to raise money to run his case against the government, has already received over US$140,000 in donations.

Lavabit’s closure has also had an unfortunate chilling effect, with other internet intermediaries seeing the writing on the wall and pre-emptively shutting up shop. Silent Circle, another encrypted email service, ceased operations and deleted all its emails, while award-winning blogger, Pamela Jones, closed down her Groklaw blog because “The owner of Lavabit tells us that he’s stopped using email and if we knew what he knew, we’d stop too.”

The alarming trend of ‘big brother’ encroachments in internet intermediaries’ activities should be what is stopped, not email or any other internet-based communication service. With intermediaries already closing business, chilling effect can only be curtailed if governments stop interfering.

Image via Flickr by Stefano Mazzone


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