Techdirt is currently embroiled in a legal battle with Shiva Ayyadurai, a man who claims to have invented email. But regardless of the outcome, founder and CEO Mike Masnick said that the $15 million lawsuit has already had a big impact on his site — a 20-year-old, independent blog covering the intersection of law and technology.
Masnick spoke today at the Public Democracy Forum in New York City, and while most people at public events will beg off commenting directly on ongoing litigation, Masnick made the lawsuit his central topic.
It’s a risky move to talk about his legal issues, Masnick admitted. He choked up repeatedly during his talk, but he said this wasn’t due to stage fright: “It’s the first time doing a talk like this that I am incredibly, painfully aware that every single word that I’m saying right here may be used against me in court.”
Masnick connected this case to the lawsuit that Terry Bollea (the real name of wrestler Hulk Hogan) brought against Gawker Media, with funding from venture capitalist Peter Thiel — a lawsuit that eventually forced the company to declare bankruptcy and sell to Univision. Ayyadurai had also sued and settled with Gawker, and in his case against Techdirt, he’s represented by Harder Mirell & Abrams, the same firm that brought Bollea’s case against Gawker.
This suit is focused on Techdirt articles about Ayyadurai’s controversial claim that he invented email. As Masnick put it, “I gave my opinion, backed up with lots of evidence, that this guy did not invent email, even if he owns the website inventorofemail.com.”
And leaving aside the invention question, Masnick said, “We believe everything we wrote, that I wrote in particular, was protected speech under the First Amendment, especially when talking about a public figure.” (Ayyadurai is running against Elizabeth Warren for one of Massachusetts’ seats in the U.S. Senate.)
Masnick argued that the real aim of the suit is to shut Techdirt down — that this is, in other words, a SLAPP lawsuit intended to silence someone’s free speech. After all, Ayyadurai has tweeted that “#FakeNewsMedia like TechShit need to be shutdown for their FAKE NEWS.”
And since the suit was filed in January, Masnick said there have been “very real chilling effects” on his business. He estimated that the site has been publishing one-third fewer stories than it was before, and he said its Copia think tank has had to delay events and papers.
“Every time I publish a story, I have to think, ‘Will I get sued over this?’” Masnick said. In fact, he claimed that since Techdirt was sued by Ayyadurai, it has received three other lawsuit threats.
At the same time, Masnick said, “As we wait for this process to play out — hopefully soon, we will see — we’re trying as hard as possible to be inspired by being in a bad situation.” So it’s been raising money for its legal fight, and it’s also working with the Freedom of the Press Foundation in the hopes of hiring reporters to “tell these stories of these chilling effects beyond our own.”