A new detail just surfaced in this year's most scandal-filled case: in March, wrestler Hulk Hogan won $140 million in his lawsuit against Gawker Media after the site published a private sex tape. What the jury (and we) didn't know was that the lawsuit was funded by Peter Thiel, a tech billionaire, PayPal co-founder, and Facebook investor with a long-standing feud with Gawker.
The feud began in 2007, when the site outed Thiel as gay—despite Thiel's explicit request not to. It was deeply violatory, perfectly legal speech.
Thiel, like some superhero or supervillain, waited eight years to destroy the company. He seized his chance by secretly funding Hulk Hogan's case, to the tune of around $10 million.
As a result of the damages owed Hogan and other legal fees, Gawker may go bankrupt.
How does it affect you?
Most literally, if you read Gawker, you may need to find a new site sometime soon.
More importantly, Thiel is effectively establishing a blueprint for how wealthy individuals can suppress freedom of the press—freedom that made the companies he started possible in the first place. In fact, outside involvement in lawsuits was restricted until the 1960's to curb wealthy people's ability to do just this.
Should Peter Thiel have funded Hulk Hogan's lawsuit against Gawker?
Gawker publicly outing a gay man against his will may be repulsive (though they beg to differ), but Thiel's actions are inexcusable.
Both Gawker and Thiel behaved legally. That's not the issue here. What is? A lack of consideration about the real effects of one's legal actions. Thiel acted selfishly, in a way that endangers a free press and all the good that comes with it. He should not have.
Tech and business writer Ben Thompson put it best: "say what you will about Gawker, the liberal democracy that made it possible for the companies Thiel has built and invested in to emerge depends on a free press." If others follow Thiel's example, amplifying litigation against small media companies, they will strangle what allows them—and all of us—to succeed.
Lawsuits don't exist in a vacuum. As the Gawker founder summarized, "even were you to succeed in bankrupting Gawker Media, the writers you dislike, and me, just think what it will mean."
Gawker publishes invasive and violatory trash, and it sells. When someone has the money and reason to fight back, it's not just worth doing. It's admirable.
The best summary comes from Thiel himself: "I can defend myself. Most of the people they attack are not people in my category. They usually attack less prominent, far less wealthy people that simply can’t defend themselves."
Supporting Thiel's actions don't mean ignoring their implications or neglecting the need to be careful about precedent. Sam Altman, entrepreneur and president of Y Combinator, recently tweeted, "as bad as I think it would be if rich people had unlimited power, I think it'd also be bad if journalists had unlimited power."
Thiel's actions were worth taking as a deterrent to publishing pure gossip with no benefit to the public interest. He reflected, "I thought it would do more harm to me than good. One of my friends convinced me that if I didn’t do something, nobody would.”