When Silicon Valley billionaires go after the media

Spoiler alert: It is not possible to review and comment on Episode 6 of the HBO show "Silicon Valley," which aired on Sunday, without revealing some critical plot twists. You are forewarned.

HBO Silicon Valley
Source: HBO | YouTube

In episode 6, Bachmanity Insanity, the storyline is ripped from the headlines. Richard Hendricks (Thomas Middleditch) in order to escape from the ramifications of his disastrous interview with technology blogger C.J. Cantwell (Annie Sertich,) feeds her a scoop that Gavin Belson (Matt Ross) had instructed the engineers at Hooli to erase web links related to the Nucleus project from search results. Cantwell "breaks" the story and Belson is mortified over the resulting backlash.

He laments that unlike former captains of industry like Andrew Carnegie or Cornelius Vanderbilt he cannot just murder or get rid of people. He decides to use his legal team and financial resources to pressure Cantwell to disclose the anonymous source at Hooli who gave her this scoop.

The fight around first amendment issues are real and very much topical. The recent developments in the Gawker/Hulk Hogan case where it was revealed that Peter Thiel, a silicon valley billionaire, has been secretly funding these lawsuits only further highlights the complicated relationship between the media and Silicon Valley.

Media watchers were quick to castigate Thiel for using his extensive wealth to fund these lawsuits. They worry that billionaires now have a blueprint to go after media organizations that publish stories they do not like. Some think that Silicon Valley denizens unlike Hollywood and New York celebrities are not used to a questioning and critical press corps and expect the press to be pliant advocates of their agenda.

The reality is more complicated than that.

Most people in Silicon Valley are libertarians – they tend to be economically conservative and socially liberal. They want government neither in the bedroom nor in the boardroom. They are also by nature suspicious of authority and incumbency. They want to change the status quo and are willing to fund the intrepid to do the improbable.

A good number of them supported Edward Snowden for what he did and have been strongly against the encroachment of privacy by the federal government. Major Silicon Valley companies like Apple and Google are constantly fighting for the privacy rights of their users e.g. Google encrypts end-to-end data to prevent snooping by the federal agencies and Apple has fought backdoors to decrypt phones.

The fight between Silicon Valley and the media is not about the first amendment but about privacy. The majority of tech executives and venture capitalists understand the need of a strong press for a vibrant democracy. They applaud when the Wall Street Journal does fantastic investigative reporting around Theranos or when the New York Times asks tough but fair questions around the employment practices at Amazon.

However, people feel strongly that there should be an expectation of privacy around people's personal lives. What makes the emergence of new media like Gawker, Vice, and Buzzfeed complicated is that while on one hand they break very important stories like Manti Te'o's dead girlfriend hoax, Obama's candid remarks in San Francisco, or Zenefits brokers not being compliant with state licensing, they also on the other hand publish salacious stories around people's personal lives without fully appreciating the consequence of their actions e.g. Justin Sacco, Conde Nast CFO, etc.

We need to find a balance between tough investigative reporting and privacy. The traditional media establishment have over time found that dividing line. The new media establishment needs to find it. Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely. This is true for companies, billionaires, tech executives and journalists. Democracy thrives when we can have checks and balances on all sources of power.

Commentary by Venky Ganesan, a managing director at Menlo Ventures and the chair-elect of the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA). Follow him on Twitter @venkyganesan.

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