Gawker Media, bankrupted by a lawsuit regarding the website's release of a sex tape involving Hulk Hogan, is up for auction today, and the New York Times is using the occasion to offer Peter Thiel, the enigmatic Silicon Valley billionaire who funded Hogan's lawsuit, a chance to explain his sometimes confusing views of the free press. In an opinion piece titled "The Online Privacy Debate Won’t End With Gawker," Thiel defends his use of the legal system, explains how he felt personally victimized by Gawker, whose blog Valleywag outed him in 2007, and argues for a bill in Congress called "the Intimate Privacy Protection Act."
Thiel first brings up his speech at the Republican National convention, where he endorsed that party's problematic nominee Donald Trump. He called himself proud to be gay, invoking in his opinion piece, as he did then, the "fake culture wars" that serve to "distract." Thiel also sets the stage for his argument by noting that "lurid interest in gay life isn’t a thing of the past," citing the now-retracted Daily Beast article of last week that outed a number of closeted Olympic athletes from anti-gay countries. While he doesn't pretend the situations are analogous, Thiel says he relates: "In 2007, I was outed by the online gossip blog Gawker," he writes. "It wasn’t so many years ago, but it was a different time: Gay men had to navigate a world that wasn’t always welcoming, and often faced difficult choices about how to live safely and with dignity. In my case, Gawker decided to make those choices for me. I had begun coming out to people I knew, and I planned to continue on my own terms. Instead, Gawker violated my privacy and cashed in on it."
Eventually, that brings Thiel to the Hogan case and his involvement in it: "Terry Bollea is better known as the wrestler Hulk Hogan, a fact that Gawker claimed justified public access to his private life... At first he simply requested that Gawker take down the video. But Gawker refused. It was getting millions of page views, and that was making money." In the end, it would be the media company's undoing.
Four years later, the financial calculus has changed. Gawker Media Group has put itself up for sale (bids are due Monday afternoon) in part to satisfy the legal judgment of a unanimous jury that ruled against Gawker and assessed damages of $140 million, proving that there are consequences for violating privacy. Mr. Bollea could not have secured justice without a fight, and he displayed great perseverance. For my part, I am proud to have contributed financial support to his case. I will support him until his final victory — Gawker said it intends to appeal — and I would gladly support someone else in the same position.
Gawker founder Nick Denton has defended his company's editorial decision to treat Thiel as a public figure in the past, observing that "A Silicon Valley billionaire is a hundred times, a thousand times more powerful than a Congressman," and arguing that journalists should cover him and people like him "even if the billionaires don't like it."
Thiel writes that "it is ridiculous to claim that journalism requires indiscriminate access to private people's sex lives," and he's totally right because that is ridiculous and no one is asking for that. Instead, and more accurately, he writes that, "sensitive information can sometimes be publicly relevant, exercising judgment is always part of the journalist’s profession." While saying "It’s not for me to draw the line," that does feel a lot like what Thiel did, exerting his financial might. And let's not forget that Thiel is a board member of Facebook, whose massive power in the future of publishing is not to be overlooked.
Thiel concludes with a plug for a bill: "The United States House of Representatives is considering the Intimate Privacy Protection Act, a bipartisan bill that would make it illegal to distribute explicit private images, sometimes called revenge porn, without the consent of the people involved." Though he says it's "nicknamed the Gawker Bill," a Google search shows it's rarely called that, and the first reference is here, on a small, far-right blog that touts itself as being featured on Sean Hannity and rush Limbaugh.
Like fights about privacy and freedom of the press, Thiel speculates that Gawker isn't really going anywhere — "suggesting otherwise would be an insult to its writers and to readers," he writes. So, does that mean he's made a bid to buy the company? It could use, you know, a transfusion of capital, and maybe, you know, some new blood.