Tech law blog Groklaw shuts down, cites surveillance concerns

Groklaw, a blog that focuses on technology law, shut down, according to an announcement from its founder.

Mark J. Terrill/ AP Photo/ File
The Department of Homeland Security's logo reflected in the glasses of a cyber security analyst.

The tech legal news blog Groklaw is shutting down due to concerns over privacy, according to a statement Tuesday made by the company’s founder, Pamela Jones.

“The owner of Lavabit tells us that he’s stopped using email and if we knew what he knew, we’d stop too,” writes Ms. Jones, referencing Lavabit’s shutdown earlier this August. “There is no way to do Groklaw without email. Therein lies the conundrum.”

Groklaw was Jones’ first foray into blogging, according to an interview Jones gave in 2003 several months after founding the site. As the blog took off, it became an award-winning blog recognized by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Bar Association. Groklaw was funded by the Free and Open-Source Software community, according to its website. Groklaw also relied heavily on user collaboration for its content, a factor that played into Jones’ decision to close the site.

“I can’t do Groklaw without your input,” writes Jones in the blog entry. “It was really a collaborative effort, and there is now no private way, evidently, to collaborate.”

Jones likened her frustrations with government surveillance to the time when a thief broke into her apartment, took small pieces of family jewelry, went through her underwear drawer, and then left. “I feel like that now, knowing that persons I don’t know can paw through all my thoughts and hopes and plans in my emails with you,” Jones writes to her readers.

Groklaw joins the ranks of Lavabit and Silent Circle – another encrypted e-mail service provider – as the three notable online resources whose shutdowns have garnered public attention. Lavabit owner and operator Ladar Levison did not give an exact reason for the site’s shutdown and stated in a letter announcing the site's closure that he was not allowed to by law. News that Edward Snowden was one of the e-mail provider’s clients, and Levison’s promise to appeal to the Fourth Circuit, fueled suspicion that the site closed while they fight a gag order from the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Court. Silent Circle followed suit to preempt any federal information requests, according to a company statement

Jones’ hyperawareness of what the NSA’s Prism program could mean for Groklaw’s account raises concerns felt, not only by private citizens, but also by bloggers, corporations, and – perhaps most acutely – by the Internet computing industry.

A recent report from the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation estimates that the United States’ multibillion-dollar cloud computing industry stands to lose anywhere from $22 billion to $35 billion over the next three years because of the NSA revelations. Slides leaked by former NSA-employee Edward Snowden show information that confirmed long-circulating rumors that the Patriot Act gave the US government broad-reaching surveillance powers. They also gave non-US cloud companies with off-shore servers a major selling point: they could protect clients’ information from data requests from the US government. 

But it’s still too early to make solid predictions about the overall effects of the NSA leaks on the US Internet companies, says David Thaw, a visiting assistant professor of law at the University of Connecticut and an affiliated fellow with the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.

“Projecting a trend requires better information than what we have right now,” says Prof. Thaw. The PowerPoints that Mr. Snowden leaked provide enough information to substantiate the existence of government surveillance programs, but they lack details of the technology used that are necessary to estimate the effects of the NSA leaks on the tech sector, he says.  

The catch is that businesses are unlikely to hold off on their decisions of where to invest – or which tech company they can trust with their data.

“The harm is greater than economic harm,” says Nate Cardozo, a staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The NSA leaks have had a chilling effect on the free exchange of ideas and public discourse, says Mr. Cardozo, creating an air of discomfort around online idea-exchange for fear of big brother government surveillance.

With Orwellian terms frequently tossed into conversation about the NSA, it seems only fitting that the “grok” in “Groklaw” comes from a Science Fiction novel “Stranger in a Strange Land” by Robert Heinlein.    

“Grok means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes part of the observed – to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group existence,” wrote Mr. Heinlein in the novel. However, there seems to be a difficulty finding a balance between the openness described by Heinlein’s grok and the government’s penchant for gathering up all of this information made public. 

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