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To Do Politics or Not Do Politics? Tech Start-Ups Are Divided

Rob Rhinehart, a co-founder of nutritional drink start-up Soylent, declared in a blog post last week that he was supporting Kanye West for president.

“I am so sick of politics,” Mr. Rhinehart wrote. “Politics are suddenly everywhere. I cannot avoid them.”

David Barrett, the chief executive of Expensify, a business software start-up, went in another direction. In an email to his company’s 10 million customers last week, he implored them to embrace politics by choosing the Democratic presidential nominee, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

“Anything less than a vote for Biden is a vote against democracy,” Mr. Barrett proclaimed.

With days to go before the election on Tuesday, Mr. Rhinehart and Mr. Barrett represent the twin poles of a start-up culture war that has openly erupted in Silicon Valley. Start-ups such as the cryptocurrency company Coinbase and the audio app Clubhouse have become embroiled in a debate over how much politics should be part of the workplace. And venture capitalists and other tech executives have weighed in on social media with their own views.

“I have never seen another instance like this in my career,” said Bradley Tusk, a venture capitalist and political consultant. “There’s no real separation anymore, in the current political climate, between politics and everything else. It has permeated absolutely everything.”

Silicon Valley tech workers have long been regarded as liberal but not politically overactive. After President Trump’s victory in 2016, however, workers at large tech companies such as Google and Amazon began agitating more on issues like the ethics of artificial intelligence, immigration and climate change.

Now many start-up workers, who have been sold on a mission of changing the world, expect their employers to support their social and political causes, entrepreneurs and investors said. This summer’s protests against police violence prompted many tech companies to re-examine their own issues with race. And the pressure to make political moves before the election has only intensified.

The shift has grown partly out of a realization that no tech platform is completely neutral, said Katie Jacobs Stanton, who invests in start-ups through her venture capital firm, Moxxie Ventures. Founders who build companies with millions of users “really have an obligation to have a point of view and make sure their products are being used for good,” Ms. Stanton said.

“It’s disingenuous and it’s also the luxury of the privileged to say, ‘We don’t have a point of view,’” she added.

But others said they feared becoming a lightning rod or inflaming tensions at a hypersensitive moment during the coronavirus pandemic. Some worried that their companies could be sued by employees who might say they were discriminated against because of their political beliefs. Others said any move could be attacked by those who found the actions inauthentic or not enough.

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Those tensions exploded in public last month when Brian Armstrong, the chief executive of Coinbase, penned a 2,000-word blog post to “clarify” his company’s culture. Mr. Armstrong wrote that he wanted Coinbase to generally avoid engaging with broader social issues and workplace conversations about politics. He said it was a way to minimize distraction and focus on the start-up’s mission of creating “an open financial system for the world.”

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Credit…Steven Ferdman/Getty Images

Two months earlier, dozens of Coinbase employees had staged a walkout after executives were slow to express solidarity with Black Lives Matter protesters and minority employees, several workers said. In his post, Mr. Armstrong said employees who disagreed with his “no politics” stance could leave.

His position immediately created waves across Silicon Valley. Some praised the move, with one Coinbase investor comparing Mr. Armstrong to Michael “Jordan in his prime.” Others said opting out of politics was itself a political statement.

Dick Costolo, a former chief executive of Twitter, tweeted that “me-first capitalists who think you can separate society from business” would be shot in “the revolution.” He deleted the post after, he said, it set off violent threats and harassment.

In an interview, Mr. Costolo said it was impossible for companies to separate their mission from their impact on the world. “If you try to separate the social contract from the economic contract, don’t be surprised when there’s an uprising, because they’re linked,” he said.

Some Coinbase workers disagreed with Mr. Armstrong. “I’m just so mystified by the apparent lack of awareness in the blog post,” Ryan King, a Coinbase engineer, wrote on the company’s internal Slack messaging system. The message was reviewed by The New York Times. “A declaration that we’re not going to touch ‘broader societal issues’ fails to acknowledge that we’re a part of society.”

About 60 Coinbase employees, or 5 percent of the work force, have resigned, the company said. A spokeswoman declined further comment.

At Expensify, based in Portland, Ore., Mr. Barrett took a different position. After spending more than a decade in Silicon Valley, where he found a “uniform view” that politics was not good for business, he moved to Portland four years ago. Now, he said, “choosing not to participate is also a choice — it’s a choice to defend the status quo.”

So when Expensify employees drafted an email to tell customers to vote for Mr. Biden, after concluding in an internal discussion that re-electing Mr. Trump would be a threat to democracy, Mr. Barrett favored sending it out. While roughly a third of Expensify’s top management opposed sending the email because it could alienate customers, the majority ruled, Mr. Barrett said.

Last Thursday, Expensify blasted its message to its 10 million users. “Not many expense reports get filed during a civil war,” Mr. Barrett wrote.

The email instantly drew criticism and praise on social media. Job applications, web traffic and customer sign-ups have since spiked, Mr. Barrett said. But he also received death threats, prompting him to hire private security. No customers have quit, potentially because Expensify’s system takes months to switch out of, he said.

Tayo Oviosu, chief executive of Paga, a payments start-up in Lagos, Nigeria, said Expensify’s email had crossed a line. Mr. Oviosu isn’t opposed to companies’ speaking up on social justice issues, “but that is very different than leveraging the fact that you used my personal information to tell me I have to vote in a certain way,” he said. “That is wrong.”

Mr. Oviosu, who was using a trial version of Expensify and was considering adopting the paid version, said he now planned to look at alternatives. “I think they lost me completely on this,” he said.

The start-up culture wars are also evident on Clubhouse, where people join rooms and chat with one another. The app has been a popular place for investors such as Marc Andreessen and other techies to hang out in the pandemic. (Mr. Andreessen’s venture firm, Andreessen Horowitz, has invested in Clubhouse, Coinbase and Soylent.)

On Oct. 6, Mr. Andreessen started a Clubhouse room called “Holding Space for Karens,” which describes having empathy for “Karens,” a slang term for a pushy privileged woman. Another group, “Holding Space for Marc Andreeeeeeeeeeeeeeeessen,” soon popped up. There, people discussed their disappointment with the Karen discussion and other instances when, they said, Clubhouse was hostile to people of color.

Mr. Andreessen and others later started a Clubhouse room called “Silence,” where no one spoke. Andreessen Horowitz declined to comment.

At a “town hall” inside the app on Sunday, Clubhouse’s founders, Paul Davison and Rohan Seth, were asked about Coinbase’s and Expensify’s political statements and where Clubhouse stood. They said the company was still deciding how Clubhouse would publicly back social causes and felt the platform should allow for multiple points of view, a spokeswoman said. She declined to comment further.

Yet even those wishing to stay out of politics are finding it hard to avoid. On Saturday, Mr. Armstrong shared Mr. Rhinehart’s blog post endorsing Mr. West on Twitter. “Epic,” tweeted Mr. Armstrong.

Several users pointed out the hypocrisy in Mr. Armstrong’s sharing something political after telling employees to abstain. One of his employees, Jesse Pollak, wrote that Mr. Armstrong had shared something with “a large number of inaccuracies, conspiracy theories, and misplaced assumptions.”

Soon after, Mr. Pollak and Mr. Armstrong deleted their tweets.

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Inside eBay’s Cockroach Cult: The Ghastly Story of a Stalking Scandal

Veronica Zea is pretty sure that before showing up to work at eBay in the spring of 2017, she used the site only once. She bought a surfing poster. It ended up in her closet.

Although Ms. Zea grew up in Santa Clara, Calif., in the heart of Silicon Valley, she cared little for the dazzlements of technology. In college, she studied criminology. After graduating, and a year spent recovering from knee surgery, she surprised herself by answering a classified ad and ending up at the e-commerce pioneer.

Ms. Zea’s first job at eBay was intelligence operator. In a windowless room at corporate headquarters in San Jose, she watched closed-circuit cameras and helped people who were locked out of their offices. Ms. Zea (pronounced ZAY) was 23, with no special skills, but she worked hard. Soon she was promoted to intelligence analyst, charged with staying ahead of geopolitical and individual threats.

Her division, Global Security and Resiliency, consisted of dozens of people, including retired police captains and former security consultants. But it was surprisingly intimate. “We’re a family,” James Baugh, the boss, and Stephanie Popp, her immediate supervisor, would say to the analysts. “We’re Mom and Dad.”

True, Dad could be kind of scary. Mr. Baugh was a stocky, middle-aged guy with thinning hair who loved to talk and did not like to be questioned. He would often say he used to work for the C.I.A. Sometimes he said his wife was working for the C.I.A. right now. Once, he found a knife on a barbecue grill on campus. A deranged person could have used it to hurt someone, he told the analysts, and proceeded to stab a chair. It was never removed, a warning for the timid. (Through his lawyer, Mr. Baugh declined to comment.)

Ms. Zea had never worked in an office. Her only real job before this was on the Grizzly roller coaster at California’s Great America amusement park. So she just accepted things. Like the way eBay was a regular film festival. Mr. Baugh would bring the analysts into a conference room and show the scene from “American Gangster” where Denzel Washington coolly executes a man in front of a crowd to make a point. Or a clip from “The Wolf of Wall Street,” where the feds are investigating shady deeds but none of the perpetrators can recall a thing. Or the bit from “Meet the Fockers” about a retired C.I.A. agent’s “circle of trust.”

That one came up frequently. “No one is supposed to know this,” Mr. Baugh would tell the analysts about some piece of office gossip. “We’ll keep it in the circle of trust.”

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Credit…Kako

Like the other analysts, Ms. Zea was a contract worker. Her ambition was to be hired by eBay itself. One mistake could crush that hope, and even risk lives. It was her responsibility to track “persons of interest” — individuals who might pose a danger to eBay — and rank them in a threat matrix. The woman who shot three people at YouTube in April 2018 proved there were people out there with a grudge against tech.

“We need to be ready,” Mr. Baugh would say. “We are the only ones who can prevent it from being really bad.” Drills happened when the analysts least expected. “There’s an active shooter in Building Two!” they would suddenly be told. Everyone would scramble.

There were usually six analysts, but turnover was high. Ms. Zea noticed that the men were becoming scarce. By May 2018 the group was entirely female. Mr. Baugh had a video for that too: Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg explaining “why we have too few women leaders.”

Ms. Sandberg did not say these women should all be young and blonde — “Charlie’s Angels” and “Jim’s Angels” were their nicknames in the executive suite — but Ms. Zea wasn’t about to point that out. Women got fired, too, and afterward the survivors would whisper about why. One departed analyst had been reprimanded for not smiling in front of executives. Another was let go because she sang to keep herself awake during the night shift. A third because she chewed on her pen.

In January 2019, the temperature in Global Security and Resiliency went up even further. Elliott Management, a hedge fund considered merciless even by Wall Street standards, bought a chunk of eBay and asked for changes. Nobody was safe — especially the chief executive, Devin Wenig. The co-founder of another company that had earlier drawn the attention of Elliott said the experience of looking up the fund online was like “Googling this thing on your arm and it says, ‘You’re going to die.’”

As Mr. Wenig and other eBay executives tried to make nice with the hedge fund, they did not want to hear criticism of the company. That could cause trouble. And if some critic persisted? They needed to shut up. If necessary, they needed to be scared speechless.

Another mandatory video was from “Billions,” the TV drama about Wall Street ruthlessness. At least five times, Ms. Zea was compelled to watch a scene in which a billionaire toys with a subordinate he has caught considering a job with a competitor. “You don’t try to be loyal,” the billionaire sneers. “You just are.”

Loyalty. That was one of the tenets of Global Security and Resiliency. In the summer of 2019, Ms. Zea did what her boss, and her boss’s boss, and the chief executive of the $28 billion company wanted — even as those things got more and more deranged, and as they were all drawn into the most lurid scandal in the history of Silicon Valley.

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Credit…Cayce Clifford for The New York Times

One year later, on June 15, 2020, the U.S. Department of Justice charged six former eBay employees, all part of the corporate security team, with conspiring to commit cyberstalking and tamper with witnesses. Their alleged targets were almost comically obscure — a mom-and-pop blogging duo from a suburb of Boston and a Twitter gadfly who wrote often in their comments section. According to the government, their methods were juvenile and grotesque, featuring cockroaches, pornography, barely veiled threats of violence and death, physical surveillance and the weaponization of late-night pizza.

“This was a determined, systematic effort by senior employees of a major company to destroy the lives of a couple in Natick,” said the U.S. attorney in Boston, Andrew Lelling, at a news conference, “all because they published content the company executives didn’t like.”

Each charge carries a sentence of up to five years in prison. Mr. Baugh, whose age was given as 45, and his deputy, David Harville, 48, were arrested. The other defendants are Ms. Zea, who is now 26; Ms. Popp, 32; Stephanie Stockwell, 26; and Brian Gilbert, 51. A seventh employee, Philip Cooke, 55, was charged in July. Contacted through their lawyers, none would comment except Ms. Zea, who said she would plead guilty. Ms. Popp, Ms. Stockwell, Mr. Gilbert and Mr. Cooke are expected to do the same. The case is still open.

This account is based on court documents and dozens of interviews with people who followed the stalking scandal closely, including six who worked in Global Security and Resilience. The scheme they describe was both completely malevolent and remarkably inept — full of daft assumptions on the part of eBay about a plot that did not exist. It stands as a warning about how easily tech companies can feel aggrieved, and the mayhem that can ensue when they do. And it vividly shows how the internet makes people crazy, often without them ever realizing it.

Paul Florence was the chief executive of Concentric Advisors, the staffing agency that placed Ms. Zea at eBay. “It felt like eBay was breaking the analysts down psychologically — making them doubt themselves, isolating them, turning them against each other,” he said. In 18 months, eBay fired at least a dozen analysts. When Mr. Florence protested, his firm was fired, too.

“I was relieved,” he said. “It seemed like a cult.”

Like many people during the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, Ina and David Steiner took a hobby and turned it into a business. Ina worked at a publishing company and collected books. David, a video producer, had been going to yard sales since he was a kid. He liked advertising collectibles, antique tools — anything that caught his eye. In 1999, four years after eBay was founded, when the notion of transacting with strangers online was still for the bold, they started a modest website offering advice to buyers.

They called it AuctionBytes, which later morphed into EcommerceBytes. Eventually, by tracking trends and policy updates across the industry, it became a resource for sellers on a number of platforms, from Etsy to Amazon — a kind of trade publication for anyone whose business is auctioning items out of a garage or storage unit. Today, Ina is in her late 50s and does the writing. David is in his early 60s and is the publisher. Neither has spoken to the press since eBay’s alleged plot against them came to light.

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Credit…Jodi Hilton for The New York Times

EcommerceBytes may not have been well-known, but it was required reading at the highest levels of eBay. In early 2019, Ms. Steiner shared the news that eBay had hired a new communications chief, Steve Wymer, who would report directly to Mr. Wenig.

The two men shared an aggressive streak. Mr. Wenig had spent most of his career in East Coast financial media, as a lawyer and executive at Thomson Reuters, and he maintained a certain New York alpha quality. Before working as a technology spokesman, Mr. Wymer had spun for three Republican senators in Washington, and he kept up an interest in politics. When Representative John Lewis tweeted about the civic importance of getting in “good trouble, necessary trouble,” for instance, Mr. Wymer replied that he had “another view on how the USA should be governed. My view is equal to your view.”

Publicly, Mr. Wenig celebrated eBay’s five community values — among them, “People are basically good” and “We encourage you to treat others the way you want to be treated.” But together, he and Mr. Wymer worked to forge a more combative eBay, one that drew less inspiration from the Golden Rule and more from “The Sopranos.” (They did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and eBay would not make any executives available for interviews.)

While neither Mr. Wenig nor Mr. Wymer have been charged — both have denied involvement in the intimidation campaign — they clearly loathed Ms. Steiner. In April 2019, she wrote about the chief executive’s compensation, noting that his haul of $18 million was 152 times what the average worker got, and mildly suggested it was coming at the expense of eBay sellers. After her post was published, Mr. Wymer texted a link to Mr. Wenig, adding: “We are going to crush this lady.”

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Credit…Lucy Nicholson/Reuters
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Credit…Mike Coppola/Getty Images for eBay

Whether Ms. Steiner was breaking news about questionable expenditures, such as a pub eBay built on its campus, or marking more innocuous developments, Mr. Wenig seemed to find her existence infuriating. On May 31, 2019, she wrote that he had “promised to give sellers greater protection” from fraudulent buyers.

“Shockingly reasonable…” Mr. Wymer wrote to Mr. Wenig.

“I couldn’t care less what she says,” the C.E.O. responded, adding: “Take her down.”

If there was one person Mr. Wenig detested as much as the Steiners, it was a Twitter gadfly best known by the handle “Fidomaster.” His wife sold on eBay and he thought the site was often unfair to sellers, so he would tweet about it. Each message might get no more than a dozen likes, but the Global Security and Resiliency analysts kept a file on him, and it quickly grew fat.

Mr. Baugh was convinced that there was a sinister relationship between the Steiners and Fidomaster — that they were actively conspiring to damage eBay. (He even indulged a theory that Fidomaster was the Steiners’ secret alter ego.) Eight days after Mr. Wenig’s “take her down” message, a member of the security team flew across the country and drove to the Steiners’ home, a steeply roofed charmer on a quiet street. On their fence, prosecutors say, he scrawled the word “FIDOMASTER.”

It was both ridiculous and threatening, and a taste of just how weird things would get.

Ebay never learned Fidomaster’s real name. Neither have I, although we spoke extensively by phone, email and Twitter. Fidomaster shared a parallel story of eBay subterfuge that is only glancingly mentioned in the criminal complaint covering the harassment of the Steiners.

In mid-2019, Fidomaster received an unsolicited message from a new Twitter user calling herself Marissa. Her picture showed her to be about 25. Claiming to be a former eBay employee, she said she possessed “extremely damaging videos of executives misbehaving” — and wanted help passing them to the Steiners.

She was fishing for Fidomaster to acknowledge that he was in league with them. When Fidomaster pointed out the obvious ways one could reach Ms. Steiner, whose email address was public, Marissa suggested leaving the videos on a thumb drive at “a hotel in the city of your choice.” The wilder her suggestions got, the more Fidomaster resisted. Get a lawyer, he kept suggesting.

According to Ms. Zea, “Marissa” was two of her fellow analysts. Fidomaster’s reluctance to take the hotel bait could have suggested to eBay that perhaps its paranoia was out of control. Instead, leaders of the security team concluded that they needed to redouble their efforts.

On Aug. 1, 2019, Ina Steiner wrote a post about a lawsuit eBay had filed against Amazon. Although it was just a couple of paragraphs, and contained only a light note of skepticism about Mr. Wenig’s strategy, the chief executive was irate. Thirty-three minutes after the EcommerceBytes article went up, he texted Mr. Wymer: “If you are ever going to take her down..now is the time.”

“On it,” Mr. Wymer responded. He texted Mr. Baugh. “Hatred is a sin,” wrote Mr. Wymer, the son and grandson of Baptist pastors. “I am very sinful.”

Mr. Baugh signaled that he was ready to escalate. “Amen. I want her DONE,” Mr. Wymer wrote. “She is biased troll who needs to get BURNED DOWN.”

Mr. Wenig was going to Italy on sabbatical for August. EcommerceBytes needed to be taken care of before he returned.

Planning for the harassment campaign began, naturally, with a movie. Mr. Baugh showed the analysts a clip from “Johnny Be Good,” a 1988 teen comedy, in which a villainous football coach must deal with a host of pests arriving at his house simultaneously: a delivery guy with hundreds of dollars of unwanted pizza, singing and dancing Hare Krishnas and their elephant, a rodent exterminator, a male stripper. Mr. Baugh asked the analysts for inspiration. One of them suggested sending the Steiners a coffin.

The security chief made it clear that eBay’s leadership supported taking action, forwarding a message by Mr. Wymer in which he declared that Ms. Steiner and Fidomaster “have seemingly dedicated their lives to erroneously trashing us.” Mr. Wymer continued: “I genuinely believe these people are acting out of malice and ANYTHING we can do to solve it must be explored.” He signed off with: “Whatever. It. Takes.”

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Credit…Kako

According to prosecutors, Mr. Baugh and members of the security team devised a convoluted and improbable strategy: to secretly harass the Steiners, and then offer eBay’s assistance in stopping the attacks — winning the Steiners’ confidence and manipulating them into favorable coverage of eBay. They called it “the White Knight strategy.” Inevitably, there was a movie screening: “Body of Lies,” a C.I.A. thriller about a fake plot that draws out a real terrorist.

Prosecutors say that on Aug. 7, Ms. Popp — the “Mom” to Mr. Baugh’s “Dad” — began sending Twitter messages to Ms. Steiner via a fake account, @Tui_Elei. The profile picture was a skull, and he seemed to be an eBay user from Samoa who believed that EcommerceBytes had harmed his sales. Ms. Steiner ignored the messages, even as the tone got angrier and more abusive. @Tui_Elei wrote: “I guess im goin to have to get ur attention another way bitch…”

A parade of disturbing deliveries began at 4 p.m. on Aug. 10, when a package containing a bloody pig mask arrived at the Steiners’ home. Fourteen minutes later, @Tui_Elei wrote: “DO I HAVE UR ATTENTION NOW????”

The Steiners received a book titled “Grief Diaries: Surviving the Loss of a Spouse” and a funeral wreath. They got fly larvae and live spiders and a box of cockroaches. Copies of the September issue of “Hustler: Barely Legal” touting “eye-popping 18-year-olds” arrived at the homes of neighbors with David Steiner’s name on them.

The Twitter bombardment continued, as @Tui_Elei began to hint at violence: “wen u hurt our bizness u hurt our familys… Ppl will do ANYTHING 2 protect family!!!!”

On his own Twitter account, Mr. Wymer evoked Fred Rogers — he said a movie about the inspirational TV personality made him cry, and he once retweeted Mr. Rogers’ line that “If there’s anything that bothers me, it’s one person demeaning another.” But inside eBay, Mr. Wymer was goading the harassment on.

“I want to see ashes,” he told Mr. Baugh on Aug. 11. “As long as it takes. Whatever it takes.”

Mr. Baugh shared the message with his deputy, David Harville, adding: “I’ve been ordered to find and destroy.”

After the menacing deliveries and the Twitter attacks, the third phase of eBay’s campaign against the Steiners began: physical surveillance in Natick.

On Aug. 15, Mr. Baugh and Ms. Zea flew first class across the country. She had to go, she was told. Late that night, after checking into the Ritz-Carlton in Boston and joining with Mr. Harville, they drove to the Steiners’ home in a rented vehicle. Their mission was to install a GPS device on the couple’s Toyota, but they soon discovered that the car was locked in the garage. Mr. Harville went to a hardware store, prosecutors say, and bought a pry bar and nitrile gloves so he could break in. (That never came to pass.)

The Steiners were suffering. “It was psychologically devastating,” Mr. Lelling, the U.S. attorney, later said. The couple lost sleep, became anxious and worried about being followed. They turned for help to the local police, who agreed to keep an eye on them.

On the team’s second day in Massachusetts, Mr. Baugh, Ms. Zea and Mr. Harville returned to Natick and began following the Steiners’ car as it drove the streets. They tapped into an internet feed of the Natick police radio, and when they overheard that they’d been spotted, they abandoned their pursuit.

But the torments continued. At 4:30 a.m., a 24-hour pizzeria delivered to the Steiners $70 of pies — and a demand for payment. @Tui _Elei kept up his semiliterate invective, with graphic sexual references. More pizza. Craigslist ads appeared, announcing estate sales (“Everything must go!”) and nightly swingers parties at the Steiner home (“Come knock on the door/ring the doorbell anytime of day or night”). @Tui _Elei doxxed their home address.

Mr. Harville returned to California, and Ms. Popp took his place in Boston. The eBay team made another attempt at surveillance on Aug. 18, this time with a different rental car — which David Steiner managed to photograph. The fourth time they traveled to Natick to stalk the Steiners, a Jeep with tinted windows was parked outside the house, easily identified as an undercover cop. With satisfaction, Mr. Baugh wrote on WhatsApp: “They are seeing ghosts now. Lol.”

Laughing was a mistake — the Natick police were fast and efficient. A detective figured out that a payment had been made on some of the pizzas with a gift card bought in Silicon Valley, just a few miles from eBay headquarters, and the license plate of one of the rental cars was traced to Ms. Zea. It wasn’t hard to figure out where she worked. On Aug. 21, a detective showed up at the Ritz-Carlton to see her. After Ms. Zea dodged him, the detective called her phone as Mr. Baugh was hustling her to the airport. Mr. Baugh answered, pretended he was her husband, and played dumb.

Ms. Zea’s flight was not for hours, so they got a hotel room at the airport to hide out. Mr. Baugh sat on the couch and played a clip from the 2003 comedy “Old School,” in which a husband answers the door to a fellow who says, “I’m here for the gang bang.” He kept watching it over and over and laughing, telling Ms. Zea to lighten up.

The Natick police got the F.B.I. involved, as well as eBay’s lawyers, who began their own investigation. According to prosecutors, Mr. Baugh’s security team began a cover-up. To explain away why a gift card used in Natick had been purchased in eBay’s backyard, they combed their list of “persons of interest” — anybody who’d ever made a threat against the company — for locals, so that they could frame someone. They also considered creating a stalker from whole cloth, preferably a Samoan, to match the fake @Tui_Elei account.

Managers also ordered up fake dossiers on the Steiners as persons of interest themselves, for the purpose of sharing them with police — to “make them look crazy,” as one of them put it, and discredit their harassment complaints.

Meanwhile, members of the security team wrote emails to one another to create the appearance that they had just discovered the @Tui_Elei tweets, and one of them, Brian Gilbert, phoned the Steiners, ostensibly to offer eBay’s support — the final step of the “white knight” strategy. “Just made phone contact,” Mr. Gilbert informed the team afterward. “They are totally rattled and immediately referred me to Natick PD.”

For hours, prosecutors say, the team workshopped cover stories to mislead the Natick authorities, and at one point considered enlisting a “friendly” in a Bay Area police department to provide falsified security camera footage. The next day, Aug. 22, Mr. Gilbert met with Natick detectives. According to records produced by prosecutors, the confident tone of the security team’s communications changed almost immediately.

On Aug. 25, looking for some high-level support, Mr. Baugh wrote Mr. Wymer that his team had done an “Op” on “our friend in Boston.” Police had gotten wind, he said, and even eBay’s lawyers were asking questions. “If there is any way to get some top cover that would be great,” he wrote. Mr. Wymer’s response is unknown.

Mr. Baugh’s team tried to stonewall company investigators. When eBay’s legal department interviewed Ms. Zea the next day, over speakerphone, the lawyers did not know that Ms. Popp was coaching her in the background. Ms. Zea lied, saying she had been in Boston to attend a conference. Afterward, according to prosecutors, Mr. Baugh instructed the team to erase data from their phones. By the end of the month, eBay lawyers knew enough to place the first members of Global Security and Resiliency, including Mr. Baugh, on administrative leave.

On Sept. 18, Ms. Zea got a message from her placement agency: “We find it necessary to terminate your employment effective today.” She received no severance. Mr. Wymer was also fired. Mr. Wenig resigned later in the month, saying it was clear he “was not on the same page” as the eBay board. There was no hint of scandal. His exit package was $57 million.

In June 2020, when the F.B.I. completed its investigation and the charges became public, Mr. Wenig said in a statement that he had done nothing wrong. “There was no direction, no knowledge, no private understanding, no tacit approval. Ever,” he said. “I was just speaking off the cuff.” In a separate statement, Mr. Wymer said he would “never condone or participate in” any of the activities directed against the Steiners.

Ina Steiner continues to cover eBay news big and small. The company’s stock has nearly doubled since a March low, thanks to the coronavirus powering online sales. Elliott Management has booked a substantial profit.

Ms. Zea is faring less well. She got a job as an analyst at a big social media company last fall, but when the Steiner case became public, she was fired. She has moved back in with her parents. She used the people-tracking skills she acquired at eBay to wipe herself off the internet. Some days, she feels she barely exists at all.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Why didn’t I leave?’” she says. “But in the moment, I was terrified and stuck. I am so sorry. I regret playing even a small role here. If I could go back in time and prevent the Steiners from experiencing this in any way, I would do so in a heartbeat.”

She says she did little in Massachusetts except sometimes drive the rented cars around Natick and call her mother and cry about how much she hated her job. It had been truly sadistic: Once, a guard pulled all the analysts’ personal possessions out of their lockers and dumped them in trash bags, to teach them that they could not expect privacy at work. This was followed by a clip about locker discipline from the Vietnam film “Full Metal Jacket.”

Tech platforms are used to commit crimes all the time, but Ms. Zea’s experience is something new: being asked to commit a crime to protect the platform itself, or at least protect the executives running it. Balk — as one of her colleagues did — and you’re fired. Go along with the plan, trusting that the ex-police captains on your team know the difference between right and wrong, and your fate might be much worse.

“I don’t know when I’ll ever trust an employer again — or when an employer will ever trust me,” Ms. Zea said.

Mr. Wenig and Mr. Wymer have no such worries. In June, Mr. Wenig was re-elected to the board of General Motors, a position that pays $317,000 a year. Mary Barra, GM’s chief executive, called the cyberstalking scandal “regrettable” but noted “it didn’t involve any GM business.”

Mr. Wymer has a new job, as the chief executive of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Silicon Valley. The chair of the board said the nonprofit was “aware” of what happened at eBay, but believes Mr. Wymer is “a leader with integrity” and was the unanimous choice for the job.

A tweet from the organization announcing his hiring included as a hashtag Mr. Wymer’s signature phrase: Whatever It Takes. For the children of Silicon Valley in the bleak year 2020, that’s the new Golden Rule.

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Maybe Information Actually Doesn’t Want to Be Free

SAN FRANCISCO — Jessica Lessin thinks the biggest story of the moment — how tech is swallowing the universe — is hopelessly under-covered by the news media. The issue is “massive,” she said not long ago in her spare, cube-like office here, and “no one is paying attention.”

Of course, it can be hard to see the forest for the tweets. From analysis of Trump’s utterances to conspiracy-peddling publishers amplifying themselves on Facebook and YouTube, tech stories increase exponentially every day. But Ms. Lessin, founder of The Information, an influential Silicon Valley publication, thinks most reporters are still focusing on the wrong topics: glamorous cryptocurrency, for example, rather than the blockchain looming over bank loans and stock trades; or the number of cars sold, rather than the artificial intelligence and driver networks that threaten to make that number obsolete.

She has focused her site on the larger picture, pursuing industry scoops and keeping the publication ad-free, instead charging $399 a year for complete access. The Information achieved profitability in 2016, Ms. Lessin said, three years after she left The Wall Street Journal to start it. She added that she expected $20 million in sales by the end of 2020, and for her staff of two dozen reporters and editors in the Bay Area, Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, Washington and Hong Kong to grow. “The fact that we have a business that’s scaling makes me excited,” she said.

This sense of hope is discordant with the rest of online media, which seems in grim shape — last year, more than 1,000 people were laid off at BuzzFeed, AOL, Yahoo, HuffPost and Vice Media. (BuzzFeed is now back on more solid footing and could be headed for a sale.)

As other online organs have bloated and intermittently fasted, The Information’s reporters have become known in Silicon Valley for sniffing out the industry’s misdeeds and tweaking its powerful. A 2017 story revealed sexual harassment allegations against a venture capitalist that led to the shutdown of his firm. A recent article revealing hidden financial data at Quibi, a new streaming service, prompted its chief executive, Meg Whitman, to compare reporters to sexual predators. (She later apologized.)

The Information is sparely, almost clinically designed and frequently refreshed. Subscribers include Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, and the media investor James Murdoch (“Please write nice things about her,” he said of Ms. Lessin), corporate clients like Google and Goldman Sachs, and most of start-up royalty. Laurene Powell Jobs, the world’s seventh wealthiest woman and an influential philanthropist who also owns The Atlantic, finds the site useful. It covers “an ecosystem and an industry I care about,” she said, adding, “I’ve followed Jessica’s byline since The Journal.”

Ms. Lessin, 36, is the rare editor to have risen from ink-stained wretch to a player, much like Peter Bart when he ruled Variety, or Anna Wintour of Vogue. But her success, unlike the editors’ of an earlier time, owes as much to the data-driven discipline of her business as her editorial tastes. In an era when many pay walls, if they exist at all, are easily scaled, Ms. Lessin is fiercely guarding the fortress.

“I’ve said this from the beginning,” she said, “and I continue to say this, but you can’t give away what you expect the reader to find valuable.”

Ms. Lessin’s instinct for tradecraft showed up before the internet was ubiquitous, when she was editor of The Greenwich Academy Press, the half-size broadsheet of her private high school, and wanted to publish it in full color. To raise the money, she persuaded the school to allow her to auction off parking spots. “I just really wanted it to look as big and professional as possible,” she recalled.

While attending Harvard, she scored the coveted faculty beat at the Crimson newspaper. “It was like covering Congress,” Ms. Lessin said. “It’s fun because you get the bickering and the politics.” Lauren Schuker Blum, a friend who worked with her there and later at The Journal, remembered Ms. Lessin’s work habits. “We all had these reporter notebooks and most of us would use like half of it, or lose it, but she had like 30 of them, impeccably detailed,” Ms. Schuker Blum said. “She was like a libel lawyer’s dream.”

After graduating in 2005, Ms. Lessin completed an internship at The Journal, then kept coming back into the office to pitch stories. Eventually, she landed a full-time job covering personal tech, one of the least popular beats at the time. The year was 2005. BlackBerrys were the gold standard of smartphones and Facebook was just an online phone book for college students.

In 2008, Ms. Lessin moved to San Francisco to cover the tech industry — and regularly breaking stories. “I was like, ‘Who the hell is this girl?’” said Paul Steiger, the Journal’s managing editor at the time. “I kind of followed her work and asked people, ‘Is she as good as this looks?’ And they said yes.”

But it was also around this time that some people began to whisper about Ms. Lessin’s possible conflicts of interest. Through Harvard, she had become friends with start-up founders or fast-rising executives at places like Google and Facebook, ostensibly her key subjects. She was also dating another graduate, Sam Lessin, who had started a company that would later be acquired by Facebook. (The two married in 2012.)

A holiday excursion in 2008 resulted in a scolding for Ms. Lessin. As the economy was plummeting, she and Mr. Lessin jetted off to the vacation home of his family on the island of Cyprus with friends of theirs from the start-up scene.

The group passed the time as many people do on vacation, drinking and lounging around the pool. And before filming such activities and sharing them with strangers would become commonplace on Instagram, they posted footage online, including the women wearing matching black-and-white checkered swimsuits, lip-syncing to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.”

The Cyprus travelers were blasted for their stunning lack of self awareness as the nation’s economy teetered toward crisis and tech companies were laying off employees. Ms. Lessin was singled out by Valleywag, the now-defunct tech site, in a post headlined, “WSJ reporter parties in Cyprus with people she covers.”

“Oh, that never made sense to me,” she said. “These were not people I wrote about. These were friends.” (A scan of Journal articles from the period shows she interviewed at least one Cyprus attendee in an article — Mike Hudack, the head of Blip.tv, a video start-up that has since shut down. Ms. Lessin says they were not friends when she wrote the article.) Still, her vacation drew disapproving scrutiny from higher-ups at The Journal, though not an official reprimand.

Ms. Lessin, in turn, was beginning to chafe at how newsrooms were covering tech — from a cool remove, she thought, never going deep. In contrast were the many bloggers who could delve into the industry’s every incremental move, but who had become so close to subjects the stories read like ad copy. Ms. Lessin said she thought: Couldn’t you do both? In-the-know reporting that still held subjects to account?

“I knew if I didn’t do it, someone else would, and I’d be kicking myself,” she said.

Valley underminers like to snipe that Ms. Lessin never had to persuade investors to back her plan. She had her own money. Her father is Jerome C. Vascellaro, a partner at the private equity giant TPG, and a significant investor in tech and media businesses like Uber, Vice and Airbnb. Her husband, a son of the late tech investor Robert H. Lessin, made a fortune from the Facebook stock he received as part of the company’s acquisition of his start-up years ago.

Ms. Lessin said she tapped her own bank account, using “less than $1 million,” to start The Information, and continues to own and control it wholly. She pays competitive salaries (albeit without equity) — as much as $180,000 or more for some top reporters. She refuses to spend more than she grosses, she said.

So far, this strategy seems to be paying off. A 2016 article on Tony Fadell, then the head of Google’s Nest division, exposed how the executive’s last-minute decrees and slow decision making had crippled the company’s hardware efforts. The story was so in demand it converted over 600 new subscribers in the first day, recalled the reporter who wrote it, Reed Albergotti, who worked at The Information from 2015 to 2019. “It blew up,” he said. “That was proof of the model.”

But is The Information — whose title anticipates an interest in nothing short of everything — just a trade publication, like Advertising Age or Publishers Weekly? (One heavily trafficked section features richly detailed organizational charts that executive recruiters mine for leads.)

Ms. Lessin, seeming a little annoyed by the question, tilting her head and widening her eyes as she computed her reply. “I think that misses the point,” she finally said. “There’s so much hunger for what we produce.”

In December, she introduced a consumer-friendly version of the site, an app called The Tech Top 10, priced at $30 a year. Instead of a dense story on Netflix’s debt structure, the app might publish a short explainer on Netflix’s price increase. “You’re matching the reader with the level of expertise they want,” Ms. Lessin said. “That’s what subscriptions allow you to do.”

She won’t say how many subscribers The Information has, but some back-of-the-envelope math suggests she’ll have to hit 40,000 paying readers by this year to reach her sales objective, which could be a significant challenge. According to three people familiar with the business, the publication surpassed 20,000 subscribers only around the middle of last year. “I can confirm we have more than that,” she said, declining to be more specific.

Her publication’s success has attracted suitors. Some time last year, John Ridding, the chief executive of The Financial Times, Britain’s pre-eminent business publication, met with Ms. Lessin in San Francisco. The salmon-colored broadsheet was interested in a possible takeover, three people familiar with the matter said. Mr. Ridding declined to comment, and Ms. Lessin said The Information was not for sale.

As at any start-up, the vibe at The Information’s open-plan offices is like a college dorm room that’s in the middle of being cleaned up ahead of Parents’ Weekend. A large part of the staff hails from The Journal, including Martin Peers, who used to be Ms. Lessin’s editor. Now, she’s his boss.

Mr. Peers, 59, is famous within journalism circles for his cantankerous nature and deep skepticism of Silicon Valley — and yet he came west. “I had been at the Journal for 15 years,” he said. “I was exhausted and what Jessica was proposing was the perfect antidote, and I thought, ‘Why not?’”

In June 2017, the site landed one of its biggest scoops: a feature that revealed sexual harassment allegations against one of Silicon Valley’s most well-connected venture capitalists. Six women had accused Justin Caldbeck, a partner at Binary Capital, of unwanted sexual advances, with three of them speaking to the reporter, Mr. Albergotti, on the record.

The story exposed a pervasive culture of misogyny and harassment within tech, immediately raised The Information’s profile and was a precursor of the broader #MeToo movement. But Mr. Albergotti, who now works at The Washington Post, remembered the staff’s anxiety as they got closer to publishing. They were keenly aware of what had happened to Gawker, which was sued for invasion of privacy by Hulk Hogan. The suit, which was financed by the venture capitalist Peter Thiel, drove Gawker into extinction and stoked a fear among publishers that anyone with enough money and willpower could vaporize a news outlet.

As the Caldbeck story was about to go to press, Ms. Lessin was in Italy attending a conference. She consulted the company’s liability insurance, which she had printed out, in her hotel room before heading to a dinner where she would be seated with Jeff Bezos. “I don’t remember if I vomited or not,” she said. “But I was very nervous.” She gave the green light.

Mr. Caldbeck didn’t sue. Instead, he resigned. A short while later, his venture firm collapsed. As a female entrepreneur, Ms. Lessin felt The Information’s work was “deeply personal,” especially as several men in the industry, who had heard the piece was in the works, contacted her to suggest the claims were overblown. These were “men I respect, who I was close to,” she said.

She wouldn’t name them. Ms. Schuker Blum, who worked with her at The Journal, said Ms. Lessin is not a gossip, like many reporters. “She’s not the journalist who’s always complaining,” Ms. Schuker Blum said. “She’s not a conspiracy theorist. She sees the best in people.”

Daniel Ek, the chief executive of Spotify, said he found the occasional, critical story on his company “not unfair.” But he added that Ms. Lessin “has to walk a tightrope given the level of access that she has. That’s got to be tough.”

Ms. Lessin’s connections continue to raise eyebrows, particularly those to Facebook. She and her husband are friends with their Harvard classmates Mark Zuckerberg, the company’s chief executive, and his wife, Priscilla Chan, who runs the couple’s philanthropy efforts. They attended each other’s weddings and both have young children. (Ms. Lessin’s two boys, Lion and Maverick, are both under the age of 3.) Mr. Zuckerberg was at The Information’s launch party, where she joked that for the super-high subscription rate of $10,000 a story could be killed (but just one). Recently, Ms. Chan was a speaker at an Information event.

The Information has published tough stories on Facebook, including a 2016 piece that revealed a weakness in its business. A more recent article exposed tensions between Chinese employees and Facebook’s leaders. But so far, it has only taken smaller swipes at the tech giant.

So how does The Information write about a company run by a friend of the site’s owner, one that is also perceived as having failed democracy, if not the universe?

Ms. Lessin was circumspect, her contralto voice echoing slightly off the glass walls of her office. “I’m very careful to draw lines around my personal life,” she said. “We have very clearly defined our culture around getting the best, most accurate story possible.”

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NYT > Business