Adrian Weckler: The tech start-up that wants you to sue
Heard the one about the billionaire venture capitalist who backed an ambulance-chasing start-up?
Peter Thiel, who recently bankrupted the news site Gawker.com by funding a defamation case taken by the wrestler Hulk Hogan, has given Legalist around €70,000 to bet on legal cases that look promising.
The US-based start-up will use algorithms to analyse whether your potential court case can win and, if so, whether to give you money to pursue it. It has already looked at 10m cases, parsing verdicts, circumstances and individual judges' pronouncements to come up with a 'big data' approach to winning court actions.
If Thiel's intentions in funding the startup are unrelated to his war on "irresponsible" journalism, the whole thing is unfortunate timing.
To put it mildly, the billionaire's motivations are being questioned.
Last week, the founder of Gawker.com, Nick Denton, devoted the soon-to-be-shuttered website's last ever article to Thiel and his current modus operandi.
"Peter Thiel has gotten away with what would otherwise be viewed as an act of petty revenge by reframing the debate on his terms," he wrote. "Having spent years on a secret scheme to punish Gawker's parent company and writers for all manner of stories, Thiel has now cast himself as a billionaire privacy advocate, helping others whose intimate lives have been exposed by the press."
For anyone who missed what happened between Thiel and Gawker, it is a morally messy case involving subterfuge and dubious moral grandstanding on both sides.
Thiel, the world's most famous technology financier, who backed PayPal and Facebook, secretly bankrolled multiple lawsuits taken by third parties against Gawker since 2007. Ultimately, he funded a (successful) $140m lawsuit taken by the wrestler Hulk Hogan (for publishing a sex tape) that has put Gawker out of business.
He went to this financial trouble because he claimed that Gawker "destroys" and "paralyses" people's lives with privacy-invading articles.
One such article reported that he was gay, which Thiel regarded as an act of being outed and which observers believe motivated his animus against Gawker.
"It's less about revenge and more about specific deterrence," Thiel told the New York Times. "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."
Gawker, he said, publishes articles that are "very painful and paralysing for people who are targeted. I can defend myself. Most of the people they attack are not people in my category. They usually attack less prominent, far less wealthy people that simply can't defend themselves."
Under this rationale, Thiel had been helping other people to sue Gawker. Under the weight of such relentless legal onslaught from the billionaire, the site has now been shuttered.
Thiel has drawn considerable criticism for using his vast resources to target and kill a single publication.
Chief among these accusations has been one of disproportionately trying to quell free speech.
"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, author of the heavyweight tech blog Stratechery.
So is Thiel's funding of a new start-up aimed at finding potentially profitable legal cases a savvy move right now?
There are plenty of people who think that the venture capitalist is not only right to do it, but that it's an act that may benefit the little guy.
"Funding lawsuits could be very helpful to the poor or even modestly rich," said Jason Calacanis, a well-known Silicon Valley investor and commentator. "Or it could break the legal system."
But much of the instinctive support that Thiel gets on the issue of Gawker, or on curbing freedom of speech in general, comes from technology executives who simply hate being held to the same levels of scrutiny that others with similar power are subjected to.
You don't have to go very far to see this kind of attitude on a smaller scale. Tech companies and their executives are extraordinarily controlling in their instincts. From the information they want circulating about them publicly to the way they parse interviewee candidates they're considering as hires, few entities are more anal about image control.
The notable aspect about this control-freakery is that it's normally not tactical, strategic or political. Many tech executives simply don't understand how someone else can report something that doesn't meet an approved narrative.
Maybe it's an engineering thing, a continual search for zero defects, but founders often seem genuinely baffled that an approved narrative - that they built, for Christ's sake! - isn't adhered to.
Sunday Indo Business