Why Facebook's board members are no strangers to controversy

The company voted to re-elect board members Peter Thiel and Marc Andreessen at a shareholders meeting Monday despite their roles in media lawsuits and Facebook's services in India.

Jacky Naegelen/Reuters/File
Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley investor who co-founded PayPal, talks to students during his visit to a coding school in Paris called 42 in February. Mr. Thiel and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen were re-elected to Facebook's board during an annual shareholders meeting meeting on Monday.

Facebook isn't distancing itself from Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley entrepreneur who last month revealed he was bankrolling a lawsuit that has succeeded in bankrupting the website Gawker, with shareholders voting to keep him on its board Monday.

The decision, during the company's annual shareholder meeting, was largely expected. But as Mr. Thiel's backing of an invasion of privacy lawsuit filed by the wrestler Hulk Hogan sparked debates about whether he was using his money and influence to silence Gawker as retribution for a 2007 story that said he was gay, Facebook was navigating a journalistic controversy of its own.

Nick Denton, the founder of Gawker Media, alluded to reports that Facebook's trending news feed suppressed conservative news stories and was curated by a team of human editors in a statement responding to Thiel's revelation that he was behind the suit last month.

Gizmodo, the tech site that originally reported that Facebook was suppressing conservative news, is owned by Gawker.

But beyond media circles, the site's decision to align itself against Facebook may also signal that the social network Mr. Zuckerberg began as a student at Harvard University has increasingly come to represent a tech "establishment" of a sort, with potentially larger consequences.

That's perhaps best signaled by the shareholders' decision to re-elect board member Marc Andreessen, a prominent venture capitalist, a vote that drew less attention than the one to re-appoint Thiel.

Mr. Andreesen played a controversial role when it came to the rollout of the company's Free Basics site in India. After India's telecom regulator barred Free Basics, an affordable Internet service that had drawn criticism as a "walled garden" and raised raised concerns about net neutrality in February, Mr. Andreesen expressed his dismay.

"Denying world's poorest free partial Internet connectivity when today they have none, for ideological reasons, strikes me as morally wrong," he wrote on Twitter, adding, "anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades. Why stop now?"

His apparent endorsement of colonialism in India prompted significant backlash, as some tech entrepreneurs had already likened Facebook's service to the colonialist British East India Company.

Publicly, Mr. Zuckerberg criticized the comments, and Andreessen deleted his tweets and apologized.

But internally, some said the comment endorsing colonialism were part of a broader misconception about India's progress when it came to technology.

"I think the mistake that people make is that they think, 'India is this developing country and there are these back-channel ways of getting things done,'" a Facebook employee told The Guardian’s Rahul Bhatia in May. "In essence, the mistake of thinking that a third-world country is a banana republic. So institutions, the public, the press – they can be bypassed."

During Monday's meeting, reports suggest Free Basics was not among the topics of discussion. The company focused on its efforts to monitor extremist content on the site when it is reported, Mr. Zuckerberg dismissed rumors that Facebook would merge its Messenger and WhatsApp services, and Zuckerberg said he would continue to be heavily involved in the company despite his philanthropic efforts, CNET reports.

Shareholder Patti Hade, a physical therapist, had hoped the executives would talk more about how it would compete with rivals, including Snapchat, which it tried to buy three years ago. "I wanted more information," she told CNET.

Before Monday's meeting, the tech site Recode noted that since Zuckberg owns more than 60 percent of Facebook's total voting power, the decision to keep Thiel on its board was ultimately his.

The site notes that Thiel is supporting presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who also has a sometimes-tense relationship with the media, including denying credentials to major news outlets whose coverage has displeased him.

Previously, Mr. Trump had been at the center of questions of whether Facebook would try to influence the election against him, charges Facebook executives denied.

But the company had long defended its decision to keep Thiel on its board, Recode notes. "Peter [Thiel] did what he did on his own," Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg said in a conference in May. "Not as a board member."

Forcing him out could also be controversial. "If he isn't voted in, well, Facebook will have some explaining to do," wrote Recode's Kurt Wagner.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.