- When The New York Times published an opinion piece by Peter Thiel this week, it failed to disclose his potential conflicts of interest.
- The piece, which was sharply critical of Google, describes him only as "an entrepreneur and investor."
- It doesn't mention he's on the board of Facebook and chairman of Palantir, two companies that compete with Google.
- The Times has faced criticism in the past for failing to disclose pertinent information about some of its op-ed writers.
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Peter Thiel's sharp attack on Google this week in The New York Times' editorial page was missing some key information that could have informed readers about his potential motivations for writing the piece.
The Times' described Thiel as "an entrepreneur and investor." Neither it nor Thiel in his piece disclosed that he has at multiple potential conflicts of interest when it comes to writing about Google and particularly about the search giant's work with the US military and with overseas entities — the focus of his piece.
Thiel sits on the board of Facebook, which competes with Google in the digital advertising market. He is also the chairman and founder of Palantir, which competes with Google in offering companies, governments, and organizations tools to analyze data. And he's an investor in Anduril, a company founded by Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey, that's providing artificial-intelligence tools to the US military.
Neither The Times nor Thiel mentioned any of this.
Thiel's piece criticizes Google for ceasing working with the US military on a project that involved artificial intelligencee and for setting up a lab in China that's developing artificial intelligence. As he noted, the Chinese government requires any technology developed in the country to be shared with its military.
But as the chairman of Palantir, Thiel wouldn't seem to be a disinterested observer. Palantir has done its own work for the US military and has been under fire itself for providing tools to US Immigration and Customs Enforcement that are reportedly being used to round up and deport undocumented immigrants.
Like Google, Palantir also has some questionable overseas ties. The company worked with Cambridge Analytica, the UK-based data analytics firm that illegitimately accessed the personal data of Facebook members and used it to assist Donald Trump's 2016 presidential campaign.
Readers called out the omission of Thiel's conflicts
Times readers took note of its omission of all of these potential conflicts.
"Can anyone explain why the fact that Peter Thiel is on the board if directors of Facebook is not mentioned?" asked "Johnray" in the reader comments area of Thiel's piece. "Isn't that a potential conflict of interest worth noting to readers? Mr Thiel has far less credibility when criticizing Google once his personal, business, and political interests are factored in."
Added "Cookin" in another reader comments: "Given the relationship of Peter Thiel's Palantir Technologies with Cambridge Analytica — widely reported in the press in the spring of 2018 — Mr. Thiel is the last person any American should trust to define what is good or bad for our country."
Members of the media also called out The Times for its lack of disclosure about Thiel. Dan Frommer, the founder and editor in chief at The New Consumer — and a former reporter and editor at Business Insider — said it "seems wild that [The Times] lets Peter Thiel dump on Google without a single note that he is a sitting Facebook board member."
Not one for most conflict-of-interest complaints, but seems wild that the NYT lets Peter Thiel dump on Google without a single note that he is a sitting Facebook board member. via @qzhttps://t.co/Z4xHXqSu6G— Dan Frommer (@fromedome) August 2, 2019
Thiel may be trying to deflect attention from Palantir
The piece's failure to mention Palantir's work with ICE is important, said Jacinta Gonzalez, senior campaign director at Mijente, a Latinx advocacy group. Thiel is trying to distract from the criticism Palantir has received for that work, calling his piece "a marketing pitch" to the US Defense Department, she said in a statement
"Thiel cloaks his argument in concern for everyday Americans, when his true aim is to deflect from his own collaboration with violators of human rights in our own government," Gonzalez said in the statement. "Stopping their work for immigration enforcement," she continued, "would endanger billions more dollars in military contracting, so Thiel and [Palantir CEO Alex] Karp are unwilling to even talk about the issue."
Representatives of The Times and its editorial page did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment. Likewise, representatives of Palantir did not respond to an email seeking comment.
The Times' editorial page has come under fire in the past for failing to disclose potential conflicts of interest. Three years ago, after The Times ran an op-ed by The Information CEO Jessica Lessin that argued that Facebook shouldn't be responsible for fact-checking articles posted to its site, its own public editor criticized the paper's editorial page editors for failing to disclose Lessin and her husband's deep personal ties to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg.
After this post was published, Thiel's bio in the op-ed was quietly updated to note his affiliation with Facebook and Palantir. But there was no note in the op-ed letting readers know that the bio had been changed, and that the first version of the story, which was up for hours, did not include this information.
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