This is an important though contentious article by Morozov, reflecting on the recent revelation that Peter Thiel was secretly funding Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against Gawker. While the much maligned company has regularly descended into prurience, they’ve provided a vital service by critically scrutinising the personal lives of digital elites & we need to resist the mobilisation of anger over their excesses into an attack on any organisation that dares invade the privacy of the increasingly well entrenched elites that run technology. In fact, this is Gawker’s own defence of their practice, as much as they’re seen as being deeply vacuous.
Gawker’s relationship with Silicon Valley, though, is more complicated for the sole reason that, when it comes to the behaviour of its own executives, the personal is also the political. Gawker has been producing coverage of the tech industry that is as lurid as it is important, subjecting the likes of Thiel to the scrutiny that they no longer receive elsewhere.
Consider what Gawker’s readers might have learned over the years. Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google’s parent company Alphabet, tells us that if we have something to hide, maybe we shouldn’t be doing it in the first place; he himself prefers to live in a luxury building without a doorman – so that no one can see him come and go. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wants us to practise openness and radical transparency; he himself purchases neighbouring houses to get as much privacy as possible. Airbnb co-founder Brian Chesky likes to boast that he is a typical Airbnb host; well, perhaps too typical – for a while, he was renting his house without obtaining the necessary legal permit.
Silicon Valley’s elites hate such intrusion into their personal lives. Had they worked for any other industry, their concerns would be justified. But they work for an industry that tries to convince us that privacy does not matter and that transparency and deregulation are the way to go. Since they do not lead by example, why shouldn’t their hypocrisy be exposed?
If tech elites are so concerned about privacy, they can start backing initiatives such as the right to be forgotten. Why can’t Thiel – a backer of the Oslo Freedom Forum, an annual gathering of the world’s dissidents where the Human Rights Foundation awards the Václav Havel international prize for creative dissent – help us to make sure that embarrassing content, taken out of context and now enjoying worldwide circulation thanks to social networks and search engines, is easier to manage?
Incidentally, there’s an interesting suggestion here that Mark Zuckerberg’s concern to reassure publishers and cement developing relationships could lead him into conflict with Thiel, who’s a member of Facebook’s board:
Facebook is used by more than 1 billion people every day, but as it has moved from personal content toward what the company refers to as “public content,” it has moved huge audiences to publishers — and become responsible for a significant share of many publishers’ traffic. Its influence is so vast that many such publishers (including BuzzFeed) have agreed to host their articles directly on Facebook’s servers via the Instant Articles product. That outsized influence on how people all across the world are informed is why a major firestorm ensued after curators of its Trending column were accused of bias. After that episode, Zuckerberg said the company had a trust problem with conservatives that it needed to address. His vote on Thiel will send another message about how he sees publishers.