Owner of Snowden’s Email Service on Why He Closed Lavabit Rather Than Comply With Gov’t


Lavabit, an encrypted email service believed to have been used by National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, has abruptly shut down. The move came amidst a legal fight that appeared to involve U.S. government attempts to win access to customer information. In a Democracy Now! broadcast exclusive, we are joined by Lavabit owner Ladar Levison and his lawyer, Jesse Binnall. "Unfortunately, I can’t talk about it. I would like to, believe me," Levison says. "I think if the American public knew what our government was doing, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore." In a message to his customers last week, Levison said: "I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people, or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit." Levison said he was barred from discussing the events over the past six weeks that led to his decision. Soon after, another secure email provider called Silent Circle also announced it was shutting down.

AARON MATÉ: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Now, in a Democracy Now! broadcast exclusive, we go to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Ladar Levison, founder, owner and operator of Lavabit. We’re also joined by his lawyer, Jesse Binnall.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ladar Levison, let’s begin with you. Explain the decision you made.

LADAR LEVISON: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> What are you facing? When you say "the lesser of two evils," what was the other choice?

LADAR LEVISON: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> For those who aren’t familiar with what encrypted email is, can you walk us through that and talk about what your service provided?

LADAR LEVISON: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> NSA leaker Edward Snowden recently described your decision to shut down Lavabit as, quote, "inspiring." He told The Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, quote, "America cannot succeed as a country where individuals like Mr. Levison have to relocate their businesses abroad to be successful. 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."

Snowden went on to say, quote, "When Congress returns to session in September, let us take note of whether the internet industry’s statements and lobbyists—which were invisible in the lead-up to the Conyers-Amash vote—emerge on the side of the Free Internet or the NSA and its Intelligence Committees in Congress."

Ladar, you were the service provider for Edward Snowden?

LADAR LEVISON: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Glenn Greenwald also wrote, "What is particularly creepy about the Lavabit self-shutdown is that the company is gagged by law even from discussing the legal challenges it has mounted and the court proceeding it has engaged. In other words, the American owner of the company believes his Constitutional rights and those of his customers are being violated by the US Government, but he is not allowed to talk about it."

Greenwald goes on to write, quote, "Just as is true for people who receive National Security Letters under the Patriot Act, Lavabit has been told [that] they would face serious criminal sanctions if they publicly discuss what is being done to their company."

Ladar Levison, why did you start Lavabit?

LADAR LEVISON:nerdshack.com, and we thought it would be cool to offer, you know, a free private email with a large quota, just like Gmail, and we sort of built the service along those lines. And as I was designing and developing the custom platform, it was right around when the PATRIOT Act came out. And that’s really what colored my opinion and my philosophy, and why I chose to take the extra effort and build in the secure storage features and sort of focus on the privacy niche and the security focus niche. And it’s really grown up from there. We’ve seen a lot of demand for, you know, people who want email but don’t necessarily want it lumped in and profiled along with their searches or their browsing history or any of their other Internet activities. And that’s really where we’ve focused and really how we’ve grown over the years, up to when I shut down 410,000 registered users.

AARON MATÉ: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Yeah, we’ve probably had at least two dozen subpoenas over the last 10 years, from local sheriffs’ offices all the way up to federal courts. And obviously I can’t speak to any particular one, but we’ve always complied with them. I think it’s important to note that, you know, I’ve always complied with the law. It’s just in this particular case I felt that complying with the law—

JESSE BINNALL: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Yeah, I—

JESSE BINNALL: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Yeah, I have—

AMY GOODMAN: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> The stakes are very high. It’s a very unfortunate situation that, as Americans, we really are not supposed to have to worry about. But Ladar is in a situation where he has to watch every word he says when he’s talking to the press, for fear of being imprisoned. And we can’t even talk about what the legal requirements are that make it so he has to watch his words. But the simple fact is, I’m really here with him only because there are some very fine lines that he can’t cross, for fear of being dragged away in handcuffs. And that’s pretty much the exact fears that led the founders to give us the First Amendment in the first place. So it’s high stakes.

LADAR LEVISON: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> And, Ladar, in your letter, you write that "A favorable decision would allow me to resurrect Lavabit as an American company." So, are you suggesting perhaps that you would consider moving it abroad?

LADAR LEVISON: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Can you say, Ladar, if you’ve received a national security letter?

LADAR LEVISON: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Unfortunately, he can’t.

AMY GOODMAN: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> I can certainly understand his position. If the government had learned that I was shutting my service down—can I say that?

JESSE BINNALL: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Yeah. But I will say that I don’t think I had a choice but to shut it down without notice. I felt that was my only option. And I’ll have to leave it to your listeners to understand why. But it’s important to note that, you know, Lavabit wasn’t the first service provider to receive a government request, and we’re not the first service provider to fight it. We’re just the first service provider to take a different approach. And it could very well be because of our size that we have that option. We’re wholly focused on secure email. Without it, we have no business. You take a much larger provider with a greater number of employees, and shutting down a major section of their company, when they have to answer to shareholders, may not be a viable option.

AMY GOODMAN: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Because my biggest fear when I shut down the service was that no good would come of it. And I’m hoping that by speaking out, I can prompt, hopefully, Congress to act and change the laws that put me in this circumstance to begin with. I know that’s a little ironic, considering I can’t speak about the specific laws that put me in this position, but, you know, there’s a real need in this country to establish what the rights are of our cloud providers. And unless we take actions to ensure that, you know, we can continue to operate secure, private services, I think we’re going to lose a lot of business over the next few years. And I think all the major providers, not just Lavabit, have gone on record to say the same.

AMY GOODMAN: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> Yeah, I think it’s a great way to communicate. I think we’re entering a world where we have any number of ways of communicating, from postal mail to Twitter, to text messaging, to Facebook, to instant messenger, to email, to telephone, to video chat. They all kind of blend together. They all sort of fit their own niche, their own purpose. And I think email still has a very important role to play in communication between people.

AMY GOODMAN: line-height:150%;font-family:"Verdana","sans-serif";mso-fareast-font-family:
"Times New Roman";mso-bidi-font-family:"Times New Roman"”> I think you should assume any communication that is electronic is being monitored.

AMY GOODMAN: