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The Plain View
“Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?” is what King Henry II reputedly said in the year 1170, referring to Thomas Becket. His knights took the hint, and the Archbishop of Canterbury was no more. Over 800 years later, in mid-2019, then-CEO of eBay Devin Wenig was upset that the editor of a small ecommerce blog was writing critical stories about his company. “Take her down,” he texted to one of his underlings.
According to a federal indictment filed on Monday, Wenig’s knights took his words to heart. The conspirators included the firm’s top security officers, including its senior director of safety and security, its director of global resiliency, its senior manager of global intelligence, a manager of its global security team who was formerly a police captain, and other analysts and contractors. They set forth on an anonymous harassment campaign explicitly meant to destroy the lives of the journalist and her husband, The eBay group mailed live cockroaches, larval worms, and a bloody pig mask to the Natick, Massachusetts, home of their targets. They sent hard-core porn to neighbors, making it look like misdirected mail ordered by the victims. They put ads on Craigslist inviting swingers to drop by the victims’ home at any time. They sent gruesome texts threatening violence. They sent a book about coping with the death of a loved one, then sent a funeral wreath. They even traveled across the country to physically surveil them.
The plans went awry when local police detected evidence that the terror campaign might lead to Silicon Valley, kicking off an investigation that charged six of the officials (but not Wenig) with a variety of offenses.
Here is what happened last year when eBay was confronted with the evidence of this astonishing behavior by some of its senior employees whose job it was to sustain trust in its community: It fired the employees directly involved. But it allowed Wenig to leave voluntarily, paying him $57 million in 2019, a sum that, according to an SEC filing, included doubling his salary and bonus, and accelerating his stock grants. No mention was made about Wenig’s presiding over a company where a criminal gang of top officers felt empowered to act like a goon squad in a grade D horror movie. A subgroup of eBay’s board of directors oversaw an investigation that apparently concluded that no further changes were required beyond firing those still with the company. eBay did not make the report public.
And this week, when the United States government filed one of most damning indictments in the history of Silicon Valley against eBay’s now-former officers, the company’s only comment was an unsigned four-paragraph statement distancing itself from the acts of its officials. Its apology to the people whose lives it attempted to destroy appeared midway through the third paragraph, apparently not even worth a topic sentence.
Not one member of the board spoke about this in public. Among the silent were board chair Thomas Tierney and directors like Lyft CEO Logan Green and Intel CEO Bob Swan. Not even eBay founder Pierre Omidyar spoke up, though his name is the one most closely associated with the company. (My attempts to get comments from these directors were fruitless.)
In April of this year, eBay brought on a new CEO: Jamie Iannone, a former WalMart executive. Iannone had three months to prepare for what might have been the most important day in his career. But his plan on the day of the indictment seemed to focus on sheltering in place. No personal message of corporate remorse. No promise to work tirelessly to prevent anything like this from reoccurring. Reporters seeking comment were directed to the unsigned statement. (To be fair, eBay’s senior VP of North America, Jordan Sweetnam, did address the issue in a public blog.) I did manage to get corporate communications head Tina Somera to give me a statement in her name:
These actions and findings presented yesterday are not representative of eBay’s values or our culture. It should be noted that this incident involved a small group of employees; it was an aberrational incident involving unacceptable conduct and eBay took swift action as soon as it was brought to our attention.
In his recent book, venture capitalist Ben Horowitz, has some smart and well-informed comments on corporate culture (that is, when he’s not extolling the virtues of Genghis Khan or prison gang leaders). He observes that the signals are sent from the top and internalized throughout the organization. “Your culture is how your company makes decisions when you’re not there,” he writes. “It’s the set of assumptions your employees use to resolve the problems they face every day. It’s how they behave when no one is looking.” The eBay officials charged with criminal conduct did not execute their plans in a vacuum. Though they understood that they had to conduct their revolting plans in secret, they did it as part of their jobs. No one in their circle stood up to say, “What the hell are we doing? This is eBay, not the KGB!”
In my experience, whenever anyone says, “This is not who we are,” they are really objecting to the exposure of a part of their nature that they would rather not admit to. Horowitz put it more succinctly, right in the title of his book: What You Do Is Who You Are. We learned this week who eBay is.
I wrote about eBay in my 1999 Newsweek dive into ecommerce business models, discussing how then-CEO Meg Whitman tweaked business practices after taking over from founder Pierre Omidyar. She, also, was the target of pesky commenters on the internet, but somehow she refrained from sending live cockroaches to their doorsteps:
By the time Omidyar began courting Whitman to become his CEO, the site was wildly popular and already profitable. eBay had transformed auctions into supercharged classified ads, and the last-minute bidding frenzy added the extra oomph of a game show. But what finally lured Whitman to Silicon Valley from Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was her discovery that its user base had become a community. Its ingenious (yet imperfect) means of establishing trust in sellers and bidders: feedback from users themselves. Extensive chat boards let eBaysians share tips and gossip. By the time Whitman attended a focus group of people whose livelihood now consisted of hawking items on eBay, she understood how auctions could empower people—and how customer loyalty could help eBay maintain a dominant market share.
But as Whitman has learned, hosting an Internet community is like leading a tiger by the tail. When you let your users down—eBay has been plagued by power failures—you hear their pain instantly. If you decide to raise a fee, as eBay did recently, the attacks will come with the passion of a Balkan conflict. “Let’s [get] that moron out of office,” went a recent rant about Whitman on an eBay chat board. “she is completely inept at her job.”
Ask Me One Thing
Arlene asks, “In the technologic age there are certain technologies that we deem to be too dangerous and easily misused to be shared on an equal basis—think nuclear weapons, a fully automatic weapon, sarin gas, etc. Why is it that the technology platforms allowing a single individual or group to reach out to billions of individuals, allowing for the greatest propaganda machine in human history, is considered completely benign? It might just be among the most dangerous technologies ever invented.”
Arlene, you are absolutely correct that giving a global megaphone to anyone with a smartphone can lead to propaganda and other destructive speech. But while the megaphones of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube were once considered relatively benign, people now widely recognize that the amplification is abused widely, and that the body politic has suffered. In some cases, like medical misinformation, bodies have suffered. The question is what to do about it. There’s definitely something awesome and empowering about giving people a voice. Technology is often described as a double-edge sword: The hard work comes in figuring out how to wield it.
You can submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Write ASK LEVY in the subject line.
End Times Chronicle
I wonder if future historians will describe these times not as a period of disease or social ferment, but the moment when the monkeys struck back. Just one alcoholic primate denied of spirits can lay waste to hundreds of humans. Worse, this particular booze-crazed killer monkey “refused to eat vegetables.”
Last but Not Least
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