In 2004, Ladar Levison founded a business to produce a product he believed in: private email . He encrypted messages before storing them, so as to limit even his own access to users’ information. The service, known as Lavabit, grew to 350,000 customers—including famed leaker Edward Snowden —and Levison remained owner and operator.
Yesterday, he closed Lavabit .
“I have been forced,” he wrote, “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.”
His statement does not specify the crimes, or what sort of complicity was demanded of him. It says instead that he legally cannot tell us—the federal government is forcing him to keep its secrets. But this sort of secrecy suggests a “national security” investigation, perhaps into Snowden . (Here's what Glenn Greenwald and his source Snowden have to say .)
What seems clear is that the government has made it impossible for Levison to provide the private service he went into business to provide, and that rather than work against his values, he has decided to stop providing that service altogether. He will not work on the government’s terms.
In Atlas Shrugged , one of the first businessmen to shrug is Midas Mulligan, the banker who refuses to comply with a government mandate to make loans he doesn’t expect will be repaid. He protects his depositors—whom he could not repay if he lost too much money on bad loans—by closing his bank, selling its assets, and repaying all deposits. Levison did not give his users the time to transition to a new email service; they may have lost data. But it appears that Levison, like Mulligan, has refused to hold himself out as offering a trustworthy service when the government will not let him offer one. He is walking away from a business in which he invested nearly a decade rather than betray the values that made it worthwhile. He is shrugging.