We stand with TechDirt, and so should you
My sincere apologies if it seems like an “all Peter Thiel all the time” day on Pando today.
Believe me when I say no one’s fingers burn as painfully as mine when writing his name. (Disclosure: Thiel is a Pando investor, ow ow it hurts.)
And yet, it seems like every thread of every horrible thing happening in Silicon Valley today -- fake news on Facebook, tech leaders embracing Trump, media organizations driven out of business -- leads directly or circuitously back to Thiel.
The latest addition to the probably circuitous but maybe direct category is the $15m lawsuit filed by Shiva Ayyadurai against tech news site TechDirt.
The case concerns TechDirt’s investigation into Ayyadurai’s claim to have invented email -- an investigation which concluded that, well, Ayyadurai probably didn’t invent email. It follows a similar suit filed against Gawker, in which Ayyadurai won a $750,000 settlement.
Ayyadurai claims that a series of posts on TechDirt amount to libel—in part because the posts call Ayyadurai a "fake email inventor" and a "fraudster" and calls his claims to have invented the technology "bogus."
While there’s no evidence that Thiel is behind this new lawsuit, Ayyadurai’s lawyer in the case is Charles Harder, the same lawyer who helped Thiel with his secret plan to destroy Gawker. Certainly the philosophical connection between Thiel’s attempt to kill Gawker and Ayyadurai’s attempt to silence TechDirt couldn’t be clearer: Both involve wealthy tech moguls using their cash (and Charles Harder) to shut down critical reporting, with the handy side effect that other media outlets are frightened into silence. At the very least, Thiel’s crusade against Gawker has emboldened plaintiffs like Ayyadurai to try to outspend the First Amendment.
It’s hard to read TechDirt’s coverage and conclude that Ayyadurai and Harder could possibly have a winnable case. Media lawyer Ed Klaris gave a similar opinion to Fortune...
"This is a classic scientific debate, which is a cornerstone of the First Amendment, second only to political debate. Theories of who invented something as basic as email software code need to be free and open and not constrained by claims of libel,"
But, of course, it barely matters whether TechDirt would win or lose in court -- the cost of defending a $15m suit could easily be enough to bankrupt the site before a judge gets a chance to rule.
While the ultimate outcome could be similar as with the Gawker suit -- a dead media organization, and critical reporting silenced -- there is, however, one clear difference between the TechDirt suit and the legal attacks on Gawker. Unlike in the Gawker case, there’s no “yes but…” caveat when defending TechDirt. Unlike Gawker, TechDirt's reporting on tech is second to none and, unlike Nick Denton, Masnick enjoys wide respect in Silicon Valley and beyond.
And it’s that difference that forces all of us in the tech industry to show our true colors when it comes to protecting free speech and freedom of the press.
Last year, when it was revealed that Peter Thiel was secretly funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit to destroy Gawker, Silicon Valley’s response was… conflicted. For every techie who cried foul over Thiel’s attack on journalism there were a hundred others who publicly or privately expressed satisfaction that Gawker was finally getting its comeuppance. My view: Gawker was a deeply unsympathetic victim -- unethical, hypocritical and often just plain wrong, particularly in its tech reporting -- but it was still a victim. It seemed obvious to me that once Thiel and his pet lawyer Charles Harder got a taste for blood they wouldn’t stop with Gawker. And this, mind you, was before Thiel joined forces with Donald “free speech is for losers” Trump.
There are very few opportunities in Silicon Valley to take a stand on an issue that’s so important that it’s enshrined in the constitution, where there’s so clearly a good guy and a bad guy, and where the consequences of staying silent are so clearly horrible. If you were one of those Valley people who didn’t speak out because Gawker wasn’t the perfect victim, you have absolutely no excuse to stay silent now that Charles Harder has come for TechDirt. If you still can’t summon the energy or courage to speak out, you’re not “conflicted” or “torn”, you’re just too much of a coward to risk picking a fight with someone close to Peter Thiel. Which means you’re part of the problem.
Because, be under no illusions, it doesn’t stop here. Even if you hate Gawker, and don't care about TechDirt, eventually Harder and co will come for you too.
To quote Masnick…
Whether or not you agree with us on our opinions about various things, I hope that you can recognize the importance of what's at stake here. Our First Amendment is designed to enable a free and open press — a press that can investigate and dig, a press that can challenge and expose. And if prominent individuals can make use of a crippling legal process to silence that effort, or even to create chilling effects among others, we become a weaker nation and a weaker people because of it.
I emailed Masnick yesterday afternoon to ask what we could do to help fight this. His answer: Spread the word. I’m happy to oblige, starting with this post. To make your own public show of support, the EFF offers a downloadable “I stand with TechDirt” image here.