Peter Thiel is a New Zealand citizen. This is what you need to know

Who is Peter Thiel?
Reuters

Who is Peter Thiel?

ANALYSIS: Late on Tuesday, while we were basking in the glow of a New Yorker piece that profiled New Zealand as a hiding spot for rich Americans, the news broke that Peter Thiel had gone the whole way and become a citizen.

You'd be forgiven for not caring much. Plenty of rich Americans move here. Why is this guy such a big deal?

Thiel is arguably one of this decade's most interesting, important, and controversial figures.

If you take a close look at the three big forces driving our modern world - media, technology, and an increasingly polarised politics - Thiel always seems to be there, somewhere behind the scenes. 

He is an outspoken Trump supporter. He runs a secretive software company that makes software used by spies. He wants young blood so he can become immortal. And last year he helped bring down a media company.

And now he's a citizen here.

Peter Thiel at Trump Tower.
Reuters

Peter Thiel at Trump Tower.

Here's a brief rundown of what we know about Thiel's citizenship and why you should care.

Tell me again, who is this guy?

Peter Thiel, 49, is a German/American/Kiwi venture capitalist who rose to fame as the co-founder and chief executive of PayPal.

Peter Thiel with US President Donald Trump, whose campaign he donated money to.
REUTERS

Peter Thiel with US President Donald Trump, whose campaign he donated money to.

After PayPal was sold to eBay in 2002 Thiel took the NZ$75m that sale netted him and became one of the world's most successful tech investors - particularly with a US$500,000 investment in a little company called Facebook in 2004. 

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This was Facebook's first outside investment. He's since sold most of his shares for around US$1 billion, but still owns a decent chunk of the company.

So he's crazy rich?

Peter Thiel speaks in support of Donald Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention.
Reuters

Peter Thiel speaks in support of Donald Trump at the 2016 Republican National Convention.

Yup. Forbes puts his net worth at NZ$3.7 billion.

Plenty of Silicon Valley people are wild rich. What is it about Thiel?

Thiel is a radical libertarian who wants to see his far-right views gain greater prominence.

How far right? In a 2009 article about how freedom and democracy were no longer compatible, Thiel arguably implied that women getting the vote had ruined democracy, writing that: ​"[s]ince 1920, the vast increase in welfare beneficiaries and the extension of the franchise to women — two constituencies that are notoriously tough for libertarians — have rendered the notion of "capitalist democracy" into an oxymoron." He subsequently elaborated by saying it would be "absurd to suggest that women's votes will be taken away or that this would solve the political problems that vex us." 

In that same article Thiel advocated for "seasteading" -  the creation of new freedom-focused nations on artificial islands. Thiel has backed a seasteading venture in the past.

Last year, an African-American dorm-mate of Thiel in college came forward to claim he once told her South African apartheid was a "sound economic system" and that "moral issues were irrelevant" to the country's economy. Thiel subsequently said he had no recollection of the conversation and never supported apartheid.

And he donated to Trump?

Yes, Thiel spoke in support of Trump at the Republican National Convention and donated US$1.25m to his campaign in the last month of the election. He was a member of his transition team and organised a very awkward looking meeting between Silicon Valley CEOs and the new President.

What's this software company used for spying?

Thiel launched a private big data analysis company in the early 2000s called Palantir - yes, after that seeing stone orb in The Lord of the Rings. 

Palantir's software is used by governments (including potentially our own) to mine large sets of intelligence data and look for threats. In other words, it helps governments and law enforcement analyse all the stuff they collect on people.


Hulk Hogan testifies in court against Gawker in a lawsuit Thiel secretly funded. Credit: Reuters

What's this media company he destroyed?

You've probably run into a Gawker Media story over the years. The pioneering gossip blog set the standard for internet writing, breaking stories and spawning a network of subblogs like Gizmodo, Kotaku, and Valleywag.

In late 2007, a Valleywag journalist told the world that Peter Thiel was gay. The reporter involved, who is gay himself, has defended this action, telling The New York Times that Thiel's sexuality was an open secret in Silicon Valley, and that keeping it from becoming widely known was "retrograde and homophobic".

Thiel was extremely angry. First, he called Valleywag "the Silicon Valley equivalent of Al Qaeda". Then he got to work completely destroying the company, funding a lawsuit Hulk Hogan took out against Gawker after they published a portion of his sextape.

Gawker founder Nick Denton, who was bankrupted by the suit. Credit: Reuters

Thiel's funding of the lawsuit allowed Hogan to really ruin Gawker in a Florida court, winning $140 million in damages. Gawker was confident it could win on appeal but the amount required before then bankrupted the company, its founder, and its editor at the time.

Usually these cases end in a settlement or lawsuit insurance kicks in, but Thiel's funding and an adept lawyer made sure that couldn't happen.

Thiel's funding of the lawsuit was secret until midway through the 2016 trial, when Forbes broke the news. Thiel described the funding as "less about revenge and more about specific deterrence." He refused to confirm or deny whether he was funding other lawsuits against Gawker operated by the same lawyer, including one by a man who claims to have invented email.


Credit:Reuters.

And he wants young blood? What?

Thiel is very interested in immortality. He sees society's acceptance of the inevitability of death as a failure of the imagination. 

One his many life-extending investments is in a "parabiosis" company called Ambrosia, who are currently researching what happens when blood plasma from people under the age of 25 is transfused into people older than 35. The idea is that the young blood heals the ravages of aging in the old. 

In an interview with Inc, Thiel described this practice as "underexplored."

"I'm looking into parabiosis stuff, which I think is really interesting. This is where they did the young blood into older mice and they found that had a massive rejuvenating effect. And so that's ... that is one that ... again, it's one of these very odd things where people had done these studies in the 1950s and then it got dropped altogether."

So he's a New Zealand citizen now. How did we find out?

Reporter Matt Nippert was looking into Thiel's purchase of a Wanaka lakefront estate on Tuesday, and asked the Overseas Investment Office about whether they had assessed this purchase of "sensitive" land by a foreign citizen.

The office came back to say they hadn't because Thiel was not a foreign citizen - he's now a Kiwi.

How did he get his citizenship? When?

Thiel became a citizen in June of 2011, the Department of Internal Affairs have said.

The "how" is yet to be seen.

Getting residence in New Zealand as a super-rich person is fairly easy - you really just need to invest more than NZ$1.5m in the country, a drop in the bucket for someone like Thiel.

But citizenship requires a bit more. If you and your family aren't born in New Zealand, then you need to spend 240 days of every year for five years in New Zealand before being granted citizenship, or be granted special permission by the government

Thiel definitely wasn't born here, and his parents are reportedly German. Given his hectic schedule running a huge software company it would seem unlikely he has spent the majority of a five-year period in New Zealand.

That leaves the special grant, which the Minister of Internal Affairs can grant if the citizenship "would be in the public interest because of exceptional circumstance of a humanitarian or other nature" or because the person would otherwise become stateless.

Thiel doesn't seem to be facing humanitarian persecution in either Germany or the USA, and he's at no risk of suddenly becoming stateless. Is there some other way that the Government has decided Thiel's citizenship is in the public interest - as they do with musicians and sporting stars from time to time?

We have requested comment from Thiel's lawyers and the Department of Internal Affairs concerning his citizenship.

In the mean time, NZ First leader Winston Peters has questioned the decision, and accused the government of "selling citizenship" to rich foreigners.

Okay, that's a lot of law stuff. Any more fun details?

Yes. Thiel prefers Star Wars to Star Trek because he thinks Star Trek is too communist. Not because of lightsabers like the rest of us.

 - Stuff

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