XMission: An Internet Provider Standing Up To Big Brother

While the big name cellphone companies were releasing information to the NSA and Silicon Valley was snuggled comfy in the NSA tent, a quiet, little known tiny Utah based internet service provider was refusing snooping requests by the government. Utah’s first independent and oldest internet service provider, Xmission, has “spent the last 15 years resolutely shielding its customers privacy from government snoops in a way that larger rivals appear not to have.”

According to the Guardian, Pete Ashdown, founder and chief executive, rebuffed warrantless requests from local, state and federal authorities citing the Fourth Amendment, proving it was possible to resist pressure from officials. Ashdown, at his headquarters in Salt Lake City, said, “I would tell them I didn’t need to respond if they didn’t have a warrant, that (to do so) wouldn’t be constitutional.” Xmission could be compared to a goldfish in the Pacific as far as internet providers go with just 30,000 subscribers.

Since 1998, Ashdown rejected “dozens of law enforcement requests, including Department of Justice subpoenas,” on the grounds of violating state law and the US Constitution. Ashdown, 46, would tell them, “Please send us a warrant,” and the agencies would drop it. Upon the advice of his lawyer, Ashdown only relented once when the FBI made a request backed by the Foreign Intelligence Service Court warrant.

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Ashdown said, “I believe under the Fourth Amendment digital data is protected. I’m not an unpaid branch of government or law enforcement.”

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The Guardian reports:

Ashdown was wary about Silicon Valley’s carefully worded insistence that the government had no direct access to servers. Access to networks, not servers, was the key, he said.

The state attorney general alleged XMission was soft on crime but the company, with a staff of 45 and turnover of $7m, suffered no official retaliation, said Ashdown. “I didn’t feel that I was in danger, or that my business suffered.”

In the wake of revelations over National Security Agency surveillance and ties to Silicon Valley he has published a report detailing official information requests, and the company’s response, over the past three years.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation called it a model for the industry. “XMission’s transparency report is one of the most transparent we’ve seen,” said Nate Cardozo, a lawyer for the San Francisco-based advocacy group.

EFF has lobbied big service providers – in vain – to publish individual government requests and their responses to the requests. Google and other giants would need a different format for scale but could emulate the Utah minnow’s spirit, said Cardozo. “The major service providers should demonstrate their commitment to their users and take XMission’s transparency report as a model.”

EFF’s most recent Who Has Your Back report – an annual ranking of privacy protection by big tech companies – gave Twitter the maximum of six stars and just one each to Apple and Yahoo.

Utah is an unlikely home for an internet privacy champion. The state’s conservative politicians cheered the Bush-era Patriot Act and welcomed the NSA’s new 1m sq ft data centre at Bluffdale, outside Salt Lake City. Ashdown, who toured the facility with a group of local data centre operators, said he had not received NSA information requests but saw irony in it siting its data behemoth in his backyard. The agency’s online snooping betrayed public trust, he said. “Post 9/11 paranoia has turned this into a surveillance state. It’s not healthy.”

The only solution to internet snooping was encryption, he said, a point he repeated on a blog.

Ashdown’s mother saw the Nazis overrun Denmark. He attributes much of his wariness to her. In the 2006 race for the US Senate, Ashdown ran as the Democratic candidate, promising to bring technology savvy to Washington, against Senator Orrin Hatch, but lost against the Republican incumbent. Ashdown tried again in 2012 but lost in the primary. Additional disappointment came upon the discovery that many Americans – at least until the NSA scandal – didn’t care about privacy when selecting an internet provider. “Unfortunately, it’s not what people think about. They put name recognition and cost ahead of privacy.”

Regardless of his political affiliation, Mr. Ashdown shows a healthy respect for the privacy of his customers and stands willing to defend their privacy by invoking Utah state law and the US Constitution. It seems that “tech savvy” Ashdown was suspicious of Silicon Valley in their use of wording in denying the government had access to their customer information. He demonstrates an open policy to his customers regarding government requests for information which is something other providers have clearly denied their customers.

It is refreshing in this day and time of government bullying to see that one person can make a difference by taking a stand against constitutional violations.

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