Will spying on users kill online businesses?

Online companies, including Google and Facebook, are under pressure to stand up to the NSA


(David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Lavabit was a secure email service promising users total privacy. Emails were encrypted on Lavabit’s servers, and the site’s owners couldn’t read the contents or share them with authorities, even if they wanted to. Edward Snowden was a customer.

Last week, Lavabit suddenly ceased operations. Owner Ladar Levison wrote this on the site’s homepage:

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.

Yesterday on the program Democracy Now!, host Amy Goodman asked Levison, who was flanked by his lawyer, to explain the details of his “difficult decision.” He said:

I can’t talk about that. I would like to, believe me. I think if the American public knew what our government was doing, they wouldn’t be allowed to do it anymore. 

Right after Lavabit pulled its own plug, Silent Circle, a company offering a similar service, also killed its encrypted email, explaining the decision thusly:

We see the writing the wall, and we have decided that it is best for us to shut down Silent Mail now. We have not received subpoenas, warrants, security letters, or anything else by any government, and this is why we are acting now.

Missives soon began appearing in The Atlantic and The Guardianshoving these principled decisions under the noses of behemoths including Google and Facebook. The message: it’s time to stand up for your users; when the NSA comes knocking, fight back any way you can. Edward Snowden took the same opportunity, relaying this message through his interlocutor, journalist Glenn Greenwald:

“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.”

The argument is that while capitulating to government surveillance requests may be easier for companies in the short-term, the fact is that intelligence agencies like the NSA don’t truly care about a company’s bottom line and can’t secure their own data. They’ll promise Internet companies total secrecy, but eventually a whistleblower like Snowden will leak word of the backroom deals. Or worse, the next whistleblower might leak the user data itself. After all, who’s better at securing user data: Google or a government bureaucracy? Ultimately, the logic goes, companies will be damaged more by an inevitable loss of public trust than they will be by wrangling with the NSA right now.

Of course for this to be true, it will need to be backed up by a clear and sustained user backlash. We know that the tide of public sentiment is turning against mass surveillance. A Washington Post poll conducted in July found that 74 per cent of Americans felt that the NSA had violated their privacy rights. We know that both President Barack Obama and Congress are feeling the pressure from constituents to reign in the NSA.

What we haven’t seen yet are significant commercial consequences for companies who agree to sell out their users, or commercial rewards for those who refuse to. That may be just what it takes.

Follow Jesse on Twitter @JesseBrown

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Will spying on users kill online businesses?

  1. It heartens me to see small business’s do this… I just don’t think the big boys can do the same, they are corporations, which by definition, are “soul-less.” They are obligated to take the path that rewards their investors the most… without pressure from their customers, I imagine they would be perfectly happy to (continue?) to hand over the data.

  2. Nope, business will grow on the internet. It is the brave new world. Everything comes with a price. Nothing is free. It is about time that people realize that they should think before doing and speaking, anywhere. Privacy is priceless. Don’t take it for granted!

  3. JB – one of your best ever!

    I watched the interview of on the Democracy Now link with Ladar Levison , and the followup interview with Nicholas Merrill. Everyone should watch these videos. They are chilling.



    Forget about zombies with an appetite for brains. How about a government with an insatiable hunger for your thoughts?

    Mr. Levison is accompanied by his lawyer, Jesse Binnnall for this interview. Mr Binnall has ears that remind one of a bat. Although perhaps blind, he hears everything and can fly silently around all obstacles without the benefit of light. I think Levison might have selected the best lawyer for this job.

    Binnall remains silent, even as Levison says this…

    There is information I can’t even share with my lawyer (38:00)

    but eventually Binnall has to intervene… (41:00)

    We can’t even talk about what the legal requirements are… (41:17)

    The moderator, Amy Goodman, asks at one point, “Can you comment on whether or not you have or not you have received a National Security Letter (NSL)? “(42:48)

    Binnall intervenes again. To paraphrase — Uh, NO.

    Nicholas Merrill, in the followup interview, reveals (after a very long court for the right to say as much), that even mentioning that you have received an NSL is punishable by up to 5 years in prison. You are required by law to disclose to the FBI that you plan to speak to a lawyer before you actually can.

    The second video ends with an excellent 2005 clip, where a certain Barak Obama, then in congress, explains rather eloquently how F****ED up this whole thing is.

    Now I know why they cancelled the X-Files. It was fiction that came a little too close being a documentary.

  4. People fail to realize democracy is a ruse and we are really managed slaves of state.

    Two facets of monitoring are law enforcement (good) and extortion (bad). But how do you do god without the bad. IRS has shown it has misused its system for political gain, so did J Edgar Hoover files. Using information for nefarious reasons is age old corruption.

    Sort of like the common myth of police. There first priority isn’t to protect us, it is to protect government from us. Take G20 protests, heads get beat but other protests supporting more other peoples money via government go un-accosted by police. Anti-marijuana policies are more about generating police state than logic, more cops for G20 like protests.

    The real reason NSA/CIA exists is similar. Get the political dirt, LE as a byproduct. Get intelligence on other foreign countries politically corrupt to control them. They can use this to keep politicians aligned with defective F35 military welfare, to how they vote in the UN or other issues. Spying and getting dirt on others for control is big business.

    That is why Assange, Snowdon, Manning and others get so persecuted, the real truth is not to be told to the people. We are in fact the enemy of oversized bloated government and the corrupt back door people who really pull the strings. The reality is our governments are corrupt to the core.