Vivek Wadhwa, Fellow, Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University
Gawker infringes on privacy and publishes tabloid-like stories that damage reputations. It is one of the most sensationalist and objectionable media outlets in the country. It also has not been kind to me. So it’s not a company that I would expect to be defending. But I worry that the battle that billionaire Peter Thiel has clandestinely been waging against it will be damaging to Silicon Valley by furthering distrust of its motives.
For better or worse, Gawker is entitled to the same freedom as any other news outlet. If it crosses the line, as it likely did with wrestler Hulk Hogan, the courts should deal with it. Silicon Valley’s power brokers should not get involved because they have access to resources that rival those of governments. They can outspend any other entity and manipulate public opinion.
Silicon Valley has more than an unfair advantage; its technologies exceed anything that the titans of the industrial age had. These technologies were built on the trust of the public — and that is needed for an industry that asks customers to share with them with literally every part of their lives. This enormous influence should come with restraint and an understanding that those with power will be scrutinized — sometimes unfairly and unjustly.
What some may find particularly troubling is that Peter Thiel is on the board of Facebook — which has become the world’s most influential media platform. Facebook decides what news a billion people will see and controls a significant portion of the traffic to leading news websites. Publications’ entire businesses can be wiped out based on a change in its algorithm. Thiel is also chairman of the board of security firm Palantir Technologies, which provides intelligence data to the CIA and FBI, and an investor in many other powerful technology firms.
There is almost no chance that any of Thiel’s companies will use their technology to target his opponents and dissenters. But Thiel’s activism only increases concerns at a time when Facebook is under fire for having a perceived liberal bias. And there is only a temporary hiatus in the battles between the FBI and Apple over security and privacy. Silicon Valley doesn’t need another dark cloud hanging over it, yet one seems to be developing.
It’s not just journalists who are affected, the culture of the technology industry is at stake too. Silicon Valley prides itself on openness, diversity, and freedom of thought and expression. You can be competing one day and cooperating on another. Criticism is accepted and dissent is expected. It’s rare to read a story such as this where a prominent figure went to great lengths to silence an adversarial voice.
Other than Gawker’s tech website, Valleywag, which was shut down this year, there are few publications in Silicon Valley that will confront its tech moguls and overhyped start-ups. Witness the ethical breaches committed by Theranos; lives were put at risk. Yet it took an exposé by John Carreyrou of the Wall Street Journal to uncover its corruption. And he had to withstand ugly threats by the company’s lawyers.
Technology businesses should be focused on their credibility and building trust by making their executives more accessible to journalists, not battling media organizations.
As Nick Bilton wrote in Vanity Fair, the valley’s system “has been molded to effectively prevent reporters from asking tough questions. It’s a game of access, and if you don’t play it carefully, you may pay sorely. Outlets that write negatively about gadgets often don’t get prerelease versions of the next gadget. Writers who ask probing questions may not get to interview the CEO next time he or she is doing the rounds. If you comply with these rules, you’re rewarded with page views and praise in the tech blogosphere. And then there’s the fact that many of these tech outlets rely so heavily on tech conferences.” Investor Jason Calacanis added, “If you look at most tech publications, they have major conferences as their revenue. If you hit too hard, you lose keynotes, ticket buyers, and support in the tech space.”
Technology is the industry of disruption — and that makes people wary. There is growing anxiety everywhere over what will be next to change. As it becomes a greater part of the economy, checks and balances are needed more than ever. The risk is that Thiel’s attempt to quash a reprehensible publication will only weaken what little exists.