Lavabit founder says he can't legally explain why he shut down email service

Lavar Levison says pulling plug on secure email service purportedly used by Edward Snowden was lesser of two evils

Lavar Levison, the founder of Lavabit, attempted to shed a bit more light yesterday on his decision to shut down his 10-year-old, supersecure email service. Levison said that the federal government gave him no recourse but to suspend the service -- which was purportedly used by whistleblower Edward Snowden. However, Levison said that there was only so much he could disclose about his decision without facing legal action from the feds.

"It was a very difficult decision. But I felt that in the end I had to pick between the lesser of two evils and that shutting down the service, if it was no longer secure, was the better option. It was, in effect, the lesser of the two evils," Levison told Democracy Now, adding that he couldn't provide any details as to what the "more evil" choice would have been. "Unfortunately, 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.

"There's information that I can't even share with my lawyer, let alone with the American public," he said a bit later.

Levison last week abruptly pulled the plug on Lavabit -- "a service by geeks, for geeks" -- under mysterious circumstances. "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," he wrote.

In yesterday's interview, Levison indicated that he'd received some form of government request, and that he had chosen to fight it by suspending the Lavabit service. He did stress that historically, he has always complied with government subpoenas. "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," he said. "It's just in this particular case I felt that complying with the law --"

Before he could finish that sentence, his attorney Jesse Binnall interrupted, cautioning Levison that "we do have to be careful at this point."

Levison said that unlike large, public companies such as Google, Microsoft, or Yahoo, he had the luxury of opting to pull the plug on the service, rather than complying with government requests he deemed unpalatable. "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," he said. "And it could very well be because of our size that we have that option. 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."

Levison is in the process of taking his case to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. Last week, he expressed hope that he could resurrect Lavabit in the United States if he wins his fight. In yesterday's interview, he noted that launching the service outside the United States would not be a viable option.

"I would have to move abroad, effectively, to administer the service. As an American citizen, I'm still subject to the laws and jurisdiction of the United States, particularly as long as I continue to live here," he said. "I still hope that it's possible to run a private service, private cloud data service, here in the United States without necessarily being forced to conduct surveillance on your users by the American government."

Levison said his biggest fear, however, is that no good will come of shutting down Lavabit. "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," he said. "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."

Not doing so could prove costly to U.S. businesses, he added. "Unless we take actions to ensure that 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."

Indeed, many U.S. tech companies have struggled to protect their reputations in the wake of the revelations about the federal government's far-reaching surveillance programs. Foreign leaders have seized the opportunity to steer their citizens away from America-based services.

Meanwhile, a recent report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation predicted that U.S.-based cloud companies stand to lose as much as $35 billion over the next three years, due to customer wariness of Prism and other spying programs.

This story, "Lavabit founder says he can't legally explain why he shut down email service," was originally published at Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest developments in business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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