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eBay’s former CEO is getting off too easily in its ugly cyberstalking scandal

June 16, 2020, 1:38 PM UTC

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The headlines about pig’s blood and cockroaches might have grabbed your attention yesterday over the scandal emerging from the usually staid e-commerce giant eBay. Federal prosecutors in Boston charged six former employees, including the former head of corporate security, with criminal cyberstalking and witness tampering after an almost year-long investigation into their effort to destroy the lives of a journalist and her husband. But one person who skated shouldn’t escape this ugly spotlight: eBay’s former CEO Devin Wenig.

It was Wenig’s obsession with the couple’s small news site covering eBay that led to the entire mess. In repeated communications with his staff, Wenig complained about the coverage on the site and began to get more specific, though never too specific, about his desires for what should happen to it: “Take her down,” and “if you are ever going to take her down now is the time,” are among the hot takes he texted to one of his direct reports. That person, who was not identified by prosecutors, reached out to the head of security and passed on Wenig’s angry missives, setting in motion a crazy, harebrained and (now allegedly) illegal harassment campaign.

The conspirators bought burner phones and prepaid debit cards with cash, set up anonymous email and Twitter accounts, and used a VPN to try and hide their tracks. They mailed the couple all manner of disturbing things, including a mask of a bloody pig face and boxes of live cockroaches and spiders, while sending them threatening messages over Twitter. Then they traveled to Boston, spied on the couple, and started posting dangerously false meet-ups on Craigslist using the couple’s address. When the couple complained to police and reported the license plate number of one of the eBay harassers’ rental cars, the group concocted false paper trails, tried to delete their texts, and lied to detectives.

Wenig now says he knew nothing about all that. “As confirmed by the company, following a thorough, independent investigation, I did not direct or know anything about the acts that have been charged in Boston,” Wenig said in a statement to the Financial Times. “I have spent my career defending press freedoms. What these charges allege is unconscionable.”

The company on Monday apologized to the couple and said that while Wenig’s “communications were inappropriate, there was no evidence that he knew in advance about or authorized the actions” described in the complaint. Still, the matter was among “a number of considerations” leading to Wenig’s departure in September of last year, the company said. The former CEO was allowed to resign while keeping his annual compensation of $17 million, plus another $40 million negotiated as part of a severance package.

Prosecutors said the investigation remains ongoing and a civil lawsuit from the couple could be forthcoming. But as of today, it remains an unconscionable breach of leadership and moral standards that the $57 million man is getting off so easily.

Aaron Pressman

@ampressman

aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Be careful what you wish for. Tim Cook's booming services story has helped push Apple's stock price to new heights, but it's also drawing less desirable attention from European competition regulators. Apple said on Monday that its app store handled $519 billion of sales and billings last year. At the same time, regulators said they have opened an investigation into the company's app store and mobile payments businesses, searching for signs of misused market power.

Nothing up my sleeve, nothing in my hat. How can the economy safely reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic? Not with much help from high-tech contact tracing apps, it seems. Norway, one of the early pioneers in creating a mobile tracing app for phones, suspended the program on Monday. Only about 14% of the adult population were active users and the country's privacy agency objected last week, saying the app should not be collecting GPS location data.

There's something happening here. While social networks increasingly try to police misuse, some of the systems they've put in place may have unintended consequences. Instagram on Monday said it would review its efforts to filter content, verify accounts, and block harassment in case it was inadvertently suppressing posts from black users. “Some technologies risk repeating the patterns developed by our biased societies,” head of Instagram Adam Mosseri wrote in a post about the review. Pinterest is also in the spotlight after two black women staffers who left last month alleged that they suffered racial abuse and discrimination while at the company. The company said an investigation found no wrongdoing. "We’re confident both employees were treated fairly,” Pinterest told Bloomberg.

You've got a friend in me. Replaying the old the-enemy-of-my-enemy play, Walmart is teaming up with Shopify. The 1,200 or so companies that sell goods online using Shopify's platform will get access to Walmart's customer base via the retail giant's online marketplace. Walmart also acquired apps and technology from CareZone, a developer of medication management software, for a reported $200 million.

Can you hear me now? Bulked up wireless carrier T-Mobile is working hard to integrate its network with the one it just acquired from Sprint. But something went very wrong on Monday, as the carrier experienced a glitch that knocked out voice and texting for customers around the country. Service was eventually restored overnight.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The smartphone is a more personal device than a PC, and that has implications for how people act when using one. Writer Heidi Mitchell examines psychological studies of phone usage in a Wall Street Journal article. She talked with Shiri Melumad, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.

The small screen of a smartphone forces people to focus more on what they’re writing than they do on a PC, a phenomenon known as attentional narrowing. Attentional narrowing is found “across online contexts: when we use our phone to tweet, write a review, answer survey questions, even when we’re asked to reveal an incriminating activity,” Dr. Melumad says. The experiments also further established that smartphones do, indeed, act as an adult pacifier, psychologically comforting users and thus driving them toward greater self-disclosure.

The upshot, Dr. Melumad says, is that people are more honest on their phones. “Typically, we edit our thoughts less, which makes smartphone-generated content more sincere.”

ON THE MOVE

After Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian stepped down from the company's board and asked to be replaced by a black person, Reddit followed suit. The newest board member is Y Combinator CEO Michael Seibel...Kevin Burns, the former CEO of vape supplier Juul, is the new president and COO of online pharmacy Alto...video game publisher Activision Blizzard added Dawn Ostroff to its board. Ostroff is chief content and advertising business officer of Spotify.

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DocuSign’s CEO on managing through the pandemic, Zoom burnout, and George Floyd’s death By Jonathan Vanian

Here’s what Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos will be grilled about by Congress By David Z. Morris

A new coating could protect ATMs from spreading diseases like COVID-19. But will it work? By Aaron Pressman

Zoom’s stock is now up nearly 250% this year. It has Goldman Sachs in its sights next By Rey Mashayekhi

U.S. and China ease coronavirus flight restrictions again after an earlier standoff By Naomi Xu Elegant

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BEFORE YOU GO

While Instagram sorts out its issues, it still can offer diversions to take your mind off of our current troubles. This morning, I am swiping through the wildlife photos of Paul Nicklen. Which are cuter, the penguins of Antartica or the sled dogs of Greenland? It's a toss up.