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Silicon Valley billionaire at war with gossip site

Rob Lever
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Peter Thiel, pictured October 3, 2011, acknowledged he is working with lawyers to find and help "victims" of Gawker Media, whose Valleywag site in 2007 revealed he is homosexual

Peter Thiel, pictured October 3, 2011, acknowledged he is working with lawyers to find and help "victims" of Gawker Media, whose Valleywag site in 2007 revealed he is homosexual (AFP Photo/Chip Somodevilla)

Washington (AFP) - Billionaire Peter Thiel acknowledged funding a legal battle against the gossip website that "outed" him, sparking debate on whether the Silicon Valley mogul has taken his media war too far.

Thiel told the New York Times late Wednesday he has provided around $10 million for the litigation by former wrestler Hulk Hogan, who sued Gawker Media for releasing a sex tape featuring Hogan and a friend's wife.

The heretofore secret war against Gawker provoked a range of reactions in the media and in Silicon Valley, with many questioning Thiel's tactics.

Thiel acknowledged he is working with lawyers to find and help "victims" of Gawker Media, whose Valleywag site in 2007 revealed he is homosexual.

"It's less about revenge and more about specific deterrence," Thiel told the newspaper.

"I saw Gawker pioneer a unique and incredibly damaging way of getting attention by bullying people even when there was no connection with the public interest."

Thiel said Gawker's reports had been "very painful and paralyzing for people who were targeted" and added: "I thought it was worth fighting back."

The 48-year-old with an estimated $2.7 billion fortune also said he was hoping to help people who have been hurt by Gawker but lack the resources he has.

He told the newspaper he hired a legal team several years ago to look for cases against Gawker, and that others are in the works.

A jury has ordered Gawker to pay Hogan $140 million. The company is appealing.

Gawker meanwhile said it was examining its strategic options in light of the litigation, confirming a report in the Wall Street Journal.

"We've had bankers engaged for quite some time given the need for contingency planning around Facebook board member Peter Thiel's revenge campaign," Gawker said in a statement.

"We recently engaged (investment banker) Mark Patricof to advise us and that seems to have stirred up some excitement, when the fact is that nothing is new."

The Hogan trial in the Florida city of St. Petersburg has been closely watched by legal experts because of its implications for privacy and free expression online.

- Thiel as 'Batman' -

But some in the media and Silicon Valley questioned whether Thiel was using his wealth to get back at Gawker for its coverage.

"If ever there were a case with no one to cheer for, this is it," Ben Thompson, a technology consultant, wrote on his Stratechery blog.

Thompson said Thiel "is being a bully of the first order" by "attempting to run Gawker out of business."

Thompson continued that Thiel "has styled himself as a twisted version of Batman: a vigilante who is not so much above the law (what he is doing is also perfectly legal), but rather one that uses the law to first and foremost avenge himself even as he spins a story about his defense of the vulnerable."

Ezra Klein, editor-in-chief of the news site Vox.com, said that "even if Gawker was wrong to post those articles, Thiel's method of reprisal is dangerous."

"Billionaires might have the resources to fund endless lawsuits that bury their media enemies beneath legal fees, but that doesn't mean they should use that freedom," Klein wrote.

Elizabeth Spiers, a co-founder of Gawker who now heads the website The Insurrection, said Thiel is engaged in "Olympic level grudge-holding" and "seems almost unhinged."

"The notion that Thiel or any one percenter could wage a war of attrition against a media outlet with the intent of destroying it for slights real or perceived should be horrifying to anyone who believes that freedom of the press is a necessary condition for an open society," Spiers wrote in a Medium blog post.

Financial journalist Felix Salmon wrote on the website Fusion that Thiel "just gave other billionaires a dangerous blueprint for perverting philanthropy."

"Thiel's tactics in going after Gawker are very, very frightening for anybody who believes in freedom of speech; they're also extremely effective, in an evil-genius kind of way," Salmon wrote.

Salmon wrote that Thiel's campaign undercuts Gawker's efforts to raise new funds.

"Investing in Gawker right now is a very unattractive proposition, since any investor knows that they will be fighting a years-long battle with a single-minded billionaire who doesn't care about how much money he spends on the fight," he said.

German-born Thiel was a founder of the online payments firm PayPal, and served as its CEO before it was sold to eBay. He was also an early investor in Facebook and has been active in venture investing in Silicon Valley.