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<nettime> John Gapper: Gawker was too liberatrian for Sillicon Valley (F
Patrice Riemens on Fri, 26 Aug 2016 15:17:53 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> John Gapper: Gawker was too liberatrian for Sillicon Valley (FT)

Ogiginal to: 
(watch ou for 'obstacles' ...)

Gawker was too libertarian for Silicon Valley

Technology entrepreneurs’ enthusiasm for rule-breaking runs out at
exactly the point when they suffer

by: John Gapper, FT, August 25, 2016.

Many English pilgrims have crossed the Atlantic to settle in the
new world, one less entangled by tradition. Nick Denton did so
in 2002, escaping strict British libel laws to found Gawker.com,
his swashbuckling gossip blog, in New York.

Goodbye to all that. Gawker was crushed this week, ceasing publication
in a flurry of defiance. He is bankrupt after a Florida jury awarded
Hulk Hogan, the wrestler, $140m damages for invasion of privacy.
Gawker Media Group, which operates six other websites, has been sold
for $135m to Univision but Mr Denton found that Gawker itself was
“too dangerous to own”.

It is impossible to write objectively about Mr Denton since we used to 
work together at the Financial Times, co-wrote a book on Barings bank, 
and are old friends who attended each other’s weddings. He would counter 
that journalistic objectivity is overrated and it is more honest and 
informative to mingle opinions, feelings and speculative gossip with 
facts, so here goes.

Gawker was more objectionable than objective even before it outed Peter 
Thiel, the technology entrepreneur, as gay in 2007. Like a press baron 
who enjoys making mischief and flaying hypocrisy, Mr Denton wanted that. 
Gawker.com was “an endlessly scrolling, eternally accessible record of 
prattle and wit and venom,” wrote Max Read, one former editor.

It did have an ethical mission: to be relentlessly honest, no matter how 
many it upset. In fact, the more people it outraged the better, in terms 
of traffic and advertising. Its story on Mr Thiel was undisputably true, 
as was the video it published showing Terry Bollea (Hulk Hogan’s real 
name) having sex. They were also highly intrusive.

Most people, me included, do not think that publishing salacious details 
and images of people’s personal lives against their wishes is much of a 
moral crusade but Mr Denton is an obstinate iconoclast.

He believes that radical transparency forces societies to become more 
tolerant. “The internet is a secret-spilling machine, and the spilling 
of secrets has been very healthy for a lot of people’s lives,” he said.

This sounds like humbug but one person to whom it could have made sense 
is Mr Thiel, who has donated $10m to finance lawsuits against Gawker, 
including Mr Bollea’s. Mr Denton and Mr Thiel are alike: both are gay 
European émigrés who “disdain convention”, as Gawker described Mr Thiel 
(who was brought from Germany as a baby). They are also libertarians who 
distrust government and preach disruption.

Mr Thiel’s libertarian beliefs are at the extreme end of the Silicon 
Valley spectrum. He supports, for example, the idea of “seasteading” — 
setting up communities at sea that would be as liberated from their 
native laws as the Pilgrim Fathers were in Massachusetts. As a 
co-founder of PayPal, he sought “a new world currency, free from all 
government control,” akin to bitcoin.

Such notions are not as outlandish in California as they would be in 
other places. Silicon Valley has a strain of counterculture 
libertarianism reaching back to the 1960s and San Francisco’s hippies. 
Entrepreneurs often talk as if their ambition is not to make money but 
to free people from government and turn “cyber space” into utopia.

He was less vulnerable to libel law than in the UK, but more at risk 
from damage claims for breach of privacy

“By starting a new internet business, an entrepreneur may create a new 
world,” Mr Thiel wrote in 2009. Internet enterprises such as Napster, 
founded as a peer-to-peer music sharing network, contrived to evade 
copyright law for a period. Social networks such as Facebook, in which 
Mr Thiel became an early investor, have “safe harbour” rights that 
partly shield them from liability for users’ behaviour.

Mr Denton’s vision for Gawker Media Group was equally utopian: “We were 
internet exceptionalists, believing that from blogs, forums and 
messaging would emerge a new world of unlimited freedom to associate and 
to express.” But he made two fatal mistakes.

First, he underestimated the risks of being a publisher and having no 
safe harbour. He was less vulnerable to libel law than in the UK, but 
more at risk from damage claims for breach of privacy. “Gossip is no 
longer the resource of the idle and of the vicious, but has become a 
trade,” wrote the judges Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis in an 1890 
article on mass newspapers, which led to tighter privacy laws.

Mr Denton’s second mistake was to misread Mr Thiel, whose libertarian 
philosophy did not extend to others taking liberties with him. That is 
the funny thing about Silicon Valley’s technology freethinkers: their 
enthusiasm for rule-breaking tends to run out at exactly the point when 
they suffer.

The affair brings to mind Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster and first 
president of Facebook, who is a friend and former investment partner of 
Mr Thiel. Mr Parker compares himself to Loki, the mischief-making 
mythical Norse god: “I’m like the prankster or Puck in mythology. He’s 
not trying to cause harm but rather to pull back the veil”.

Loki came to a sticky end, bound with the entrails of one of his sons 
after he offended more powerful gods. Mr Denton played Loki to Silicon 
Valley and Mr Thiel entangled him in US tort law. It works equally well.

john.gapper {AT} ft.com

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