"I have been forced to make a difficult decision: to become complicit in crimes against the American people, or walk away from nearly 10 years of hard work by shutting down Lavabit,"  Lavabit LLC owner Ladar Levison wrote in a letter that was posted on the Texas-based company's website on Thursday.

Levison said he has decided to "suspend operations" but was barred from discussing the events over the past six weeks that led to his decision.

That matches the period since Snowden went public as the source of media reports detailing secret electronic spying operations by the US National Security Agency.

"This experience has taught me one very important lesson: without congressional action or a strong judicial precedent, I would strongly recommend against anyone trusting their private data to a company with physical ties to the United States," Levison wrote.

The US Department of Justice had no immediate comment. At a Moscow news conference four weeks ago, a Human Rights Watch representative said she had been contacted by Snowden from a Lavabit email address, a media report said.

Use of effective encryption by regular email users is rare. Some of Snowden's leaked documents show that Google Inc , Microsoft Corp and other large providers have been compelled to help intelligence authorities gather email and other data on their users.

The big providers and other companies typically offer encryption but said they cooperate with legal requests, including those by intelligence officials. Lavabit was something of an outlier, in part because it had said email was encrypted on its servers and could only be accessed with the user's password.

Snowden has been charged with espionage but was granted asylum by Russia, prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to scrap a planned meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Lavabit's statement suggested a gag order was in place, and lawyers said that could accompany any one of a wide range of demands for information. The government could be seeking unencrypted versions of Snowden's email correspondence, other information about him, the technical means to decrypt his future emails or those of other customers, or basic information on all of Lavabit's hundreds of thousands of users.


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