Business, Enterprise

N.S.A. Surveillance Causes Legal Website to Close

The technology legal news website Groklaw is shutting down. That was the headline Tuesday morning. 

Groklaw’s Editor Pamela Jones said she made the decision due to concerns over the diminishing availability of secure email in the wake of Edward Snowden?s revelations about the National Security Agency (N.S.A) surveillance and storage of emails.

The reason for closure of Groklaw, according to site's founder Pamela Jones
The reason for closure of Groklaw, according to site’s founder Pamela Jones

What this means is we have lost one of our most valuable resources for understanding the legal implications of technological law for both laymen and lawyers alike. Editor Jones writes a lengthy and insightful explanation of why she can’t run the Groklaw site without email, and that since email privacy can’t be guaranteed, she can no longer do the site’s work. Everyone should click on the Groklaw link and read all of her thoughts ? they are important explanations of the effect of surveillance on individuals.

The Groklaw website began in the spring of 2003 and grew in popularity because Jones, a tech savvy paralegal living in New York City, provided comprehensive analysis and research of the legal challenges from SCO Group (SCO) that threatened the open-source Linux operating system. SCO eventually lost all their challenges and is in bankruptcy. For the next 10 years, Groklaw analyzed cases that defined free and open source software and related issues such as patents.

In 2008, Pamela Jones and Groklaw helped this writer make the case that there was prior art to an Apple patent claim (U.S. Patent #20070291710 filed on December 20, 2007) that involved ordering food and drinks with a graphical interface and a wireless POS (Point of Sale) application. Apple was able to keep their patent because the person with the prior art (a software and hardware system) was not financially able to fight Apple’s nearly unlimited legal resources. This was just one of the many times Groklaw took on the issue of prior art in patents which has remained a major theme of the site until Tuesday.

Jones wrote Tuesday on the Groklaw website: "There is no shield for forced exposure, now that I know that ensuring privacy online is impossible. I find myself unable to write."

Edward Snowden, as portrayed in an image off the BBC Coverage
Edward Snowden, as portrayed in an image off the BBC Coverage

Secure email provider Lavabit also announced recently that it would shut down due to an ongoing legal dispute, presumably with the U.S. government probably due to the N.S.A.’s capturing and storing emails. Company owner Lader Levison wrote on its website: "I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become implicit in crimes against the American people or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit." Lavabit was reportedly used by former N.S.A. contractor Edward Snowden, who leaked documents related to N.S.A. spying programs and is now in Russia after being given asylum by that country.

Jones has fiercely protected her own privacy over the ten-years. She has had private detectives for major corporations follow her, follow her family members, invade their privacy, and attempt intimidation.

Groklaw’s mission statement reads: "One part of the group knows what kinds of things are useful in a court case, another knows the tech to understand what?s important technically, others have skills in researching the history of UNIX and Linux, and other volunteers to transcribe, attend court hearings, and pick up court documents, etc."

Last year, the American Bar Association named Groklaw one of the top 100 legal blogs. Its articles and interviews were selected by the Library of Congress to be preserved in its web archiving project. The Library of Congress contacted Jones, she asked Groklaw’s community to decide whether the material should be archived or not. They decided it was important to be preserved.

Dates when PRISM collection began for each provider listed here
Dates when PRISM collection began for each provider listed here

Many reader comments were added to the various articles written about Groklaw’s closing. Some of the readers do not realize the content of emails received by Jones at Groklaw are in effect from "whistle blowers" about corporate and government shenanigans. The moment emails are stored in any government?s repository they could be subject to legal review in a court case. Or some government agent (or contractor like Snowden) could leak the contents of an email and jeopardize the original writer as well as Ms. Jones.

We all know now that the Internet is under constant surveillance without the protections afforded by the U.S. Constitution. There is serious dissent in the U.S. Congress about the surveillance tactics used by the N.S.A.. One of the more strident critics is Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (Republican of Wisconsin) who has been a member of Congress since 1978 and is the former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. He is the primary author of the Patriot Act. Sensenbrenner said:

"I did not kn
ow the administration was using the Patriot Act for bulk collection, and neither did a majority of my colleagues. Regardless, the suggestion that the administration can violate the law because Congress failed to object is outrageous. But let them be on notice: I am objecting right now."

To change the N.S.A. and judicial oversight legislation will be a long and argumentative path. Without input from the public about the N.S.A. tactics and the lack of transparent judicial oversight, the United States will continue to lose the trust of the world community. This is already showing up in the number of businesses overseas that are discontinuing their use of American-based cloud services.

If you are an American, have you contacted your Congressperson to let them know how you feel about excessive government surveillance? I feel very sad to see this important website disappear because my government is acting as if it is above the law.

Pamela Jones and I exchanged emails late yesterday afternoon in which she mused that people try to read things into everything she says or does when she is simply being truthful. The Internet community has lost that with the closing of Groklaw.