Adrian Weckler: Peter Thiel bodyslams Gawker in personal war
Published 29/05/2016 | 02:30
So who do we feel sorry for? The outed tech billionaire revenge-suing an online publication into bankruptcy? Or the media company which says anything is fair game as long as people keep clicking the links?
The case pitting Peter Thiel against Gawker Media is as morally complex as it is compelling.
Thiel, who is the world's most famous technology financier with megahits such as PayPal and Facebook under his investment belt, has declared all-out war on Gawker because he claims the media network "destroys" and "paralyses" people's lives with privacy-invading articles.
In this regard, Thiel admitted last week that he has bankrolled multiple lawsuits against the US media company which is behind sites such as Gizmodo, Lifehacker, Kotaku and Jezebel. The most significant of these cases is that taken against Gawker by the former WWF wrestler, Hulk Hogan. Hogan, whose real name is Terry Bollea, sued Gawker for publishing a sex tape involving him. With the help of Thiel's money, Hogan won the case with a US court awarding him $140m in damages. Unless the judgement is reversed on appeal, it will bankrupt Gawker.
Up to now, Thiel has done all of this in secret. His animus against Gawker is believed to stretch back to a 2007 Gawker article headlined 'Peter Thiel is totally gay, people'. This, he is said to believe, was a gross violation of his privacy and an abuse of journalistic ethics. So he set about finding cases against Gawker that had a good chance of winning and hurting the media company.
The case has divided opinion in the tech and media worlds. Is Thiel a dangerous billionaire bully or is he striking a blow against cynical proto-journalism? Or is it a bit of both?
Those who condemn Thiel argue that his actions are a clear attack on a free press. They say that whatever his grievances with Gawker, he is clearly more powerful than the foe he is squaring up against. By suing them into the ground, he is setting a dangerous precedent.
"Gawker could continue to fight the Hogan case, it could even win that case outright on appeal," wrote Felix Salmon, the influential financial commentator. "But even if Hogan went away, Thiel's lawsuits would not end. Gawker's future is indeed grim: it can't afford to fight an indefinite number of lawsuits, since fighting even frivolous suits is an expensive game."
On the other hand, even those who disagree with what Thiel is doing find it difficult to defend Gawker.
"Gawker does do good work - but they do really terrible things as well," argues Ben Thompson, author of the heavyweight tech blog Stratechery. "And their outing of Thiel despite his explicit request not to is indefensible. It disgusts me, and my disgust is only deepened by its moralising and righteousness . . . as if Gawker has the right to make the most personal of decisions for anyone."
The affair is engrossing Silicon Valley and media brass partially because of the nuances involved. Thiel, for example, is a board member of Facebook. Facebook is now considered to be a significant player within, and even a rival to, the global media business. If Facebook's board members are now privately taking out media companies in their spare time, there may be bigger questions to be asked of Mark Zuckerberg's firm.
Elsewhere within the media and tech industries, clear divisions on the whole matter have been formed. Media companies, bloggers and other commentators with strong online media profiles have defaulted to Gawker's side, arguing that Thiel's actions represent the greater of two evils.
"I don't dispute Peter Thiel's right to back Hogan's case," wrote John Gruber, author of the influential Daring Fireball blog. "I simply think he's an asshole for doing it and a coward for having attempted to do it in secret."
But a number of technology executives have publicly rallied to Thiel's defence arguing that media ethics, which have long been on the slide, are now completely out of control. They say that Gawker is the principal author of its own downfall with damaging, cynical articles that weaken the credibility of the wider media business.
This echoes what Thiel himself told the New York Times in an interview last week.
"It's less about revenge, more about specific deterrence," said Thiel. "I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest."
In Europe, the act that spurred the current court case - publishing the Hogan sex tape - would constitute an open-and-shut privacy case that Gawker would lose. Here, there would be little sympathy for the site as we believe in stronger privacy rights than Americans seem to.
On the other hand, Thiel might reflect on the vast power that he has when deciding when he exercises it.
"No matter how badly Thiel was personally hurt by Gawker, or how morally wrong their actions were, he is the one with far greater power," argues Ben Thompson. "The appropriate approach is not to leverage said power in an act of vigilantism, but to exercise the responsibility of defending the conditions that made his power possible to emerge."
Sunday Indo Business