Internal emails from Texas-based private intelligence firm Stratfor leaked by Wikileaks show that it is, at best, a sleazy operation, offering corporate and government clients dubious information and advice. Julian Assange goes further, crowing that Wikileaks' cache of Stratfor emails reveals a corrupt and nefarious "global network of informants who are paid via Swiss banks accounts and pre-paid credit cards—which includes government employees, embassy staff and journalists around the world." The good news is that Alexis Ohanian, Internet do-gooder-in-chief and co-founder of geek Shangri-la Reddit, is not in cahoots with Stratfor. The bad news is that he wanted to be.
In 2011, Ohanian proposed consulting for Stratfor on social media strategy, according to emails newly leaked by Wikileaks as part of its Global Intelligence Files project, meant to expose the firm's misdeeds. The negotiations stemmed from a chance January, 2011 meeting between Ohanian and Stratfor Chairman George Friedman in the green room at Bloomberg TV (the source of much of the evil in the world). "He's a huge Stratfor fan," Stratfor communications VP Meredith Friedman gushed after the meeting. "He and George met and talked about doing something with Reddit for social media."
Emails show that Ohanian did indeed met with Stratfor on a trip to Austin for SXSW a couple months later. That meeting apparently went well, because soon after Ohanian emailed a proposal for a social media consulting gig. The brain that built Reddit does not come cheap:
We're proposing $25,000 for April to include the following discovery phase:
- Audit of the Economist in social media & online
- This includes twitter, facebook, youtube, blogs, forums, social news, podcasts, etc.
- Audit of Stratfor in social media & online
- Audit of another competitor (if you so desire) in social media & online
- Three potential campaigns for going forward based on our analysis
- Five recommendations concerning your existing profiles (e.g., top 5 ways to improves how you're using twitter right now)
Moving forward, assuming you love our expertise as much as we think you will, we'd be open to discussing consulting services on retainer.
Stratfor responded that they would consider the offer. In the meantime, Ohanian, who's Armenian, said, he'd be "happy to introduce [Stratfor chairman George Friedman] to some of my pals in Armenia."
A few days later, Ohanian followed up and offered a (very slightly) more affordable option: "If you'd like to call me up for a skype consulting session I run $1,000/hour," he emailed Friedman. $1,000 an hour! Maybe the whole consulting thing was a secret act of subversion: bankrupt Stratfor with outrageous fees so it has to stop spying on people. I once spoke to Ohanian in real-life, for free; I wish I knew at the time what a deal I was getting.
Soon after these emails were leaked by Wikileaks, they were picked up by angry Redditors. Some floated the possibility that Ohanian was somehow manipulating Reddit on behalf of Stratfor.
"No one believed this place was any more independent than huffpo, did they?" wrote Redditor Limrickroll. The conspiracy theories were fueled by the fact that nearly all threads about the emails were quietly censored by moderators. This precluded the sort of networked mob justice that would likely engulf Reddit if any luminary besides Ohanian was found to have engaged in a similar discussion with a Wikileaks nemesis, and proves again that Reddit embraces free speech as long as it is not speech about Reddit.
But Ohanian quickly tweeted that the deal didn't go through, and he didn't end up consulting for Stratfor. "They asked me for a quote in the meeting, so I gave it to them," he wrote in an email to Gawker. Ohanian explained he was cool with Stratfor in 2011 because this was before the Wikileaks leak, and he only knew of the company from the daily email briefings on world events they sent out. In follow-up tweet, he revealed this wasn't his first encounter with the surveillance-industrial complex: in 2007 he gave a paid talk at government contracting giant Booz Allen Hamilton, NSA analyst Edward Snowden's former employer, about new media.
This episode would barely be worth mentioning if Reddit was just another tech company and Ohanian another tech founder. After all, Ed Snowden's recent revelations show Silicon Valley companies like Google and Facebook are so tight with U.S. spy agencies they've practically undergone a merger, accepting millions of dollars to turn over their users' information to the NSA. Charging a private intelligence firm a few thousand bucks to boost their Klout score seems pretty trivial.
But Ohanian's entire public image is based on the idea that he's not just another craven tech entrepreneur. He's been branded the "Mayor of the Internet" and built a sterling reputation as an arch technoutopian and information freedom activist, most notably through his work on defeating SOPA. Tech blogs, which are structurally prohibited from encountering a bad idea without whole-heartedly embracing it, keep urging Ohanian to run for office for real. I wouldn't be surprised if this happens within the next few years. Now it turns out Ohanian champions Wikileaks and the ideology of radical information freedom it embodies while schmoozing with government contractors that represent everything Wikileaks, not to mention Reddit, hates most. He'll fit right in in Washington.
[image via Getty]