The two companies essentially committed suicide.
The shutdown of two small e-mail providers on Thursday illustrates why it is so hard for Internet companies to challenge secret government surveillance: to protect their customers’ data from federal authorities, the two companies essentially committed suicide.
Lavabit, a Texas-based service that was reportedly used by Edward J. Snowden, the leaker who had worked as a National Security Agency contractor, announced the suspension of its service Thursday afternoon. In a blog post, the company’s owner, Ladar Levison, suggested — though did not say explicitly — that he had received a secret search order, and was choosing to shut the service to avoid being “complicit in crimes against the American people.”
Within hours, a fast-growing Maryland-based start-up called Silent Circle also closed its e-mail service and destroyed its e-mail servers. The company said it saw the writing on the wall — while also making it plain that it had not yet received any court orders soliciting user data.
Mike Janke, the chief executive, said the company’s customers included heads of state, members of royalty and government agencies. The company will continue its encrypted phone and text messaging service.
In effect, both businesses destroyed their assets — in part or in full — to avoid turning over their customers’ data. Such public displays are far more difficult for large companies to make, and help explain why the most public efforts to challenge secret government orders have come from small companies and nonprofits.
“Providers are in a bind,” observed Orin Kerr, a law professor who specializes in surveillance law at George Washington University. “They need to respect the privacy rights of customers in order to keep customers, but they also have an obligation to comply with the law. A small company can say, ‘Rather than comply with the law, we will go under.’ But Verizon is not going to do that.”
He added: “The government usually has an easier time with large companies because they have more of a long-term need to have good relations with the government.”
Large Internet companies have moved more quietly and cautiously, addressing consumers’ concerns about government requests only after information about secret orders was leaked by Mr. Snowden. This week, technology industry executives and lobbyists attended meetings at the White House.
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