The Eccentric Tech Billionaire Behind The Gawker Suits Has Some Curious Ideas

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The idea that an overly sensitive rich guy would use clandestine court maneuvers — in a pro wrestler’s defamation case, no less — to financially drain a pesky news outlet would be comical, if not so troubling.

But Peter Thiel is not just any overly-sensitive rich guy.

He is an outspokenly libertarian, Silicon Valley billionaire who has expressed skepticism about women’s suffrage, helped fund conservative gadfly James O’Keefe’s “sting” videos, is convinced that death can be evaded through technological advancements, and proposed that like-minded libertarians build sea colonies where they can escape the tyrannies of conventional government.

Now he is also the financial weight behind Hulk Hogan’s sex tape lawsuit, and other legal endeavors targeting Gawker, as he admitted to the New York Times after a report by Forbes. He said the roughly $10 million crusade was about “deterrence,” after Gawker’s “bullying” of him and his colleagues.

The founder of PayPal and an early Facebook investor, Thiel’s stature in the tech industry looms so large that the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley” features a character loosely based on him.

Thiel’s animosity towards Gawker is no secret. The website outed Thiel as gay in 2007 and he has long been the target of its mockery. Gawker has at times delved again into Thiel’s personal life, but its scrutiny of him — in its trademark snarky tone — has largely been devoted to topics within the public sphere, including his business failures, his political contributions and the eyebrow-raising remarks he has made to the press, such as “[Gawker blog] Valleywag is the Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Qaeda”.

Thiel made a name for himself with PayPal, which he dreamed up in 1998 with a computer programmer. Thiel banked $55 million when the company went public, and it was sold to Ebay in 2002 for $1.5 billion. With his fortune, Thiel — either personally or through his venture capital firm the Founders Fund — has invested in many well-known tech companies, including LinkedIn, Spotify, SpaceX and AirBnB. He was Facebook’s first outside investor, according to the New Yorker, lending creator Mark Zuckerberg half a million dollars in 2004 for a 7 percent stake. Having sold most of his shares in the social media company, Thiel now sits on the social media giant’s board. He is also the co-founder of Palantir, a notoriously secretive data-mining company that has scored big with government national security contracts.

But it’s not just Thiel’s business ventures that have attracted him attention. The tech mogul is outspoken in his political views, which his buddy and investment partner Elon Musk described as “extremely libertarian.”


Thiel with PayPal co-founder Elon Musk.

Thiel was born in Germany in 1967, moved to the states a year later, before his dad moved him around the United States and Africa for his engineering job. His family landed in the San Francisco Bay area when Thiel was 10, and as a child, he was a brainiac who ranked in the top 10 of national child chess players.

During this time Thiel embraced libertarianism. He earned undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford, where he launch the Stanford Review, a conservative newspaper. There, he was also inspired by a campus controversy to co-write a book, 1995’s “The Diversity Myth,” about the perils of “multiculturalism” and political correctness. Before getting into tech, Thiel did a short stint at a tony law firm followed by a gig at Credit Suisse

His political activism has gone hand-in-hand with his business persona. He is a co-founder and financial backer of the “Seastead” movement, which seeks to colonize man-made islands in the middle of the ocean outside the reaches of government.


A model for the floating libertarian countries promoted by the Seastead Institute, which Thiel has funded.

Thiel has also been highly critical of higher education and even set up a scholarship program that rewards young, aspiring entrepreneurs with $100,000 grants to skip college in order to pursue start-up ideas. His views on the university systems are among those caricatured on “Silicon Valley.”

Thiel has made it his platform that technology can solve the problems that government has only made worse. For instance, confronting the irony that the libertarian’s company Palantir rakes in millions of taxpayer dollars to help the NSA, FBI and CIA comb through its surveillance data, Thiel explained, “If you can figure out effective ways to identify terrorists, then you don’t need to be as intrusive. It’s a lack of technology that drives intrusive behavior.”

In 2009, Thiel wrote an essay for CATO describing why he had lost hope in the political system, in which he suggested that women gaining the right to vote was part of the reason it was so dysfunctional. He later added a note to semi-walk it back: “While I don’t think any class of people should be disenfranchised, I have little hope that voting will make things better.”

But his distaste for the political process has not stopped him from getting involved in it. He contributed to Ron Paul’s 2008 presidential primary race and to John McCain in the general, as well as to Ted Cruz’s 2012 senatorial campaign and the super PAC supporting Carly Fiorina’s White House bid. Thiel is now a Donald Trump backer, and serving as a delegate for the presumptive GOP nominee.

He also gave conservative activist James O’Keefe a $10,000 grant to work on his video “exposés,” including the “sting” film targeting ACORN, the now-defunct community service organization. (Thiel’s spokesperson told the Village Voice he was unaware of the anti-ACORN campaign until it became public.) Thiel was among the funders of a Newt Gingrich-led group that promotes oil drilling while campaigning against clean energy efforts. A Gawker report also speculated that he was financially linked to the anti-immigrant group Number USA, though he and his hedge fund denied the connection.

Of less controversy were Thiel’s “substantial” donations to the Committee to Protect Journalists — well, of less controversy until now.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tierney Sneed is a reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked for U.S. News and World Report. She grew up in Florida and attended Georgetown University.
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