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Not one but two US-based email providers have just decided to shut down to protect the privacy of their users amid the escalating debate over US surveillance practices. These are canaries in the coal mine for privacy online.

Lavabit posted an ominous, carefully crafted note from owner Ladar Levison explaining it would rather shut down a 10-year-old business than “become complicit in crimes against the American people.” Levison explained he’s prohibited from describing what he may have been asked to do, but said he was fighting for user rights in US court. Lavabit’s mission was to offer “e-mail service that never sacrifices privacy for profits”; Edward Snowden was reported to have been a customer.

In response, another secure email service, Silent Circle, announced it was shutting down its email function as a preemptive step to protect its users’ privacy, even though it hadn’t received any government request for information.

These developments should worry anyone who cares about their privacy. Such companies offer secure online services as a core part of their mission and business model.  Their customers are the most privacy-sensitive among us, including journalists, whistleblowers, and human rights groups. If the current fear of US surveillance is driving these companies out of business, what hope is there for the average Internet user to protect private data? How will journalists and rights groups work safely, without fear of reprisal? This is the chilling effect of surveillance in action. 

Levison also warned that “without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States.” The secrecy around government demands from US companies has destroyed trust in US-based cloud services. These are the economic consequences of surveillance run amok. 

The canaries are dying. The rest of the US Internet industry may face similar peril unless the Obama administration enacts meaningful reforms to protect the right to privacy for all users.


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