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11 Jul, 2013 04:29

Small Utah ISP firm stands up to ‘surveillance state’ as corporations cower

Despite having fewer resources and a fraction of the customers that broadband giants like Verizon and AT&T boast, one small internet service provider has resisted pressure from the NSA and refused to turn over customer data without a warrant.

Xmission, an independent company based out of one office in Salt Lake City, Utah, has spent nearly two decades protecting its customers’ privacy as the National Security Agency, Department of Justice, and prosecutors have ramped up pressure on internet service providers (ISPs). 

Owner Pete Ashdown told RT that every data collection request stops at his desk, since he is the sole proprietor of Xmission. At a larger company, a panel of stockholders would bow to government pressure, he added.

It’s pretty basic for me. Most of their requests are not constitutional. They’re not proper warrants so I turn them back,” he said.

The government began sending data requests to Ashdown 15 years ago but the entrepreneur, who launched his business in 1993, acquiesced just once - at the advice of his lawyer. He agreed to hand over the data only after receiving an FBI request accompanied by a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in 2010. Local governments and police in Utah were behind most of the other formal inquiries that he received.

There was actually a bill passed about four years ago that allowed local law enforcements to request information out of ISPs without a warrant and I fought that bill,” Ashdown said. “After it passed, I decided I was going to make a conscious effort to refuse those requests because it’s very easy for law enforcement to get a warrant and go through a court and do it properly - but these are not passed through a court, so there’s no check and balance. There’s no accountability with it.” 

Pete Ashdown

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), one of the internet’s biggest privacy advocate organizations, has consistently ranked Xmission’s transparency report among the most desirable for subscribers concerned about privacy. But that respect has not come without insinuations from state lawmakers - although there has been no official retaliation against Xmission.

We have had situations where people inside the Attorney General’s office have slandered my business and said that we’re supporting criminals,” Ashdown said. “We absolutely do not support criminals. We just ask for a proper warrant and that seems to be too much to ask most of the time, unfortunately.”

Ashdown has pledged his willingness to go to jail to protect his customers’ privacy - a cause which he says is all too rare in the current profit-first climate exposed by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden. 

The other issue that we saw with the NSA exposure is that companies like Google, Microsoft and Apple were supposedly cooperating,” he said. “They’re probably charging for that privilege, so they’re making a financial decision to open their networks for inspection by the NSA and it’s not worth it to me to do that. I don’t want to live in a surveillance society and I’d rather stick with what our Constitution says we’re protected by.” 

I’ve got more to lose. I couldn’t fight a protracted court battle but I’m willing to do it. I’m willing to go to jail to protect my customers from being monitored. I find it surprising that a company with the resources of Google isn’t more circumspect about the information they’re giving away and what they’re selling.”

Ashdown made clear that he is a Snowden supporter, encouraging the informed public to act in order to reverse the post-September 11 paranoia that has seeped into the national consciousness. Whistleblowers like Snowden, along with others who disclose information, could be the best hope for those worried about the future, according to Ashdown.

I think it’s shameful that he’s being treated like a criminal for standing up and reporting what I believe are illegal acts by our government…otherwise we have no recourse to turn our government around.”