In 2014, Tumblr was on the front lines of the battle for net neutrality. The company stood alongside Amazon, Kickstarter, Etsy, Vimeo, Reddit, and Netflix during Battle for the Net’s day of action. Tumblr CEO David Karp was also part of a group of New York tech CEOs that met with then-FCC chairman Tom Wheeler in Brooklyn that summer, while the FCC was fielding public comment on new Title II rules. President Obama invited Karp to the White House to discuss various issues around public education, and in February 2015 The Wall Street Journal reported that it was the influence of Karp and a small group of liberal tech CEOs that swayed Obama toward a philosophy of internet as public utility.
But three years later, as the battle for net neutrality heats up once again, Tumblr has been uncharacteristically silent. The last mention of net neutrality on Tumblr’s staff blog — which frequently posts about political issues from civil rights to climate change to gun control to student loan debt — was in June 2016. And Tumblr is not listed as a participating tech company for Battle for the Net’s next day of action, coming up in three weeks.
A representative for Battle for the Net told The Verge in an email, “Outreach for the day of action is very much an active and ongoing process... I wouldn't read too much into who is and isn't on the list so far.” Still, a rep for Tumblr declined to comment on whether the company would be participating, and AOL’s senior VP of brand communications Caroline Campbell responded to an inquiry about whether Tumblr would maintain its stance on net neutrality, writing “[It's] just too early to answer your question.”
When a company and a CEO have a reputation for being loud, silence says something.
Karp is still outspoken on other issues that matter to him, however. He is on the board of Planned Parenthood, and Tumblr hosted a “Never Going Back” rally at SXSW this year, protesting renewed threats on reproductive rights. He published a joint statement with Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards on The Verge, and has been extremely outspoken about his belief that tech industry leaders are obligated to step in to defend federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Meanwhile, Karp’s only public comment about net neutrality since the 2016 election was a quote he gave to Variety as an aside at SXSW in March: “I’m heartbroken to see the sea change on net neutrality.”
One reason for Karp and Tumblr’s silence? Last week Verizon completed its acquisition of Tumblr parent company Yahoo, kicking off the subsequent merger of Yahoo and AOL to create a new company called Oath. As one of the world’s largest ISPs, Verizon is notorious for challenging the principles of net neutrality — it sued the FCC in an effort to overturn net neutrality rules in 2011, and its general counsel Kathy Grillo published a note this April complimenting new FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s plan to weaken telecommunication regulations.
Now, multiple sources tell The Verge that employees are concerned that Karp has been discouraged from speaking publicly on the issue, and one engineer conveyed that Karp told a group of engineers and engineering directors as much in a weekly meeting that took place shortly after SXSW. “Karp has talked about the net neutrality stuff internally, but won’t commit to supporting it externally anymore,” the engineer said. “[He] assures [us] that he is gonna keep trying to fight for the ability to fight for it publicly.” Karp did not respond to four emails asking for comment, and neither Yahoo nor Tumblr would speak about the matter on the record.
On the day Verizon’s Yahoo acquisition was completed, Tumblr was hit by a wave of layoffs. A number of current and former employees shared a post by social media industry commentator Andréa López entitled “Layoffs and Tumblr the Centipede.” In it, López theorizes, “In addition to the real life talented human beings impacted by these layoffs, the move is a warning and reminder — Tumblr is no longer in the protective purgatory of pre-Verizon Yahoo.” If Mayer’s Yahoo didn’t really know what it was doing with Tumblr, that meant Tumblr was free to do what it wanted. That extended to politics: Yahoo didn’t give Tumblr any official blessing or encouragement when it decided to become the tech industry’s fiercest net neutrality defender three years ago. Now things are a little bit stickier.
Bryan Irace, an engineering manager who worked at Tumblr from March 2012 to November 2015, explained Tumblr’s culture to The Verge in an email, writing, “We all [participated]. As with many other causes (e.g. SOPA/PIPA), [net neutrality] was a huge part of the company culture. A free and open Internet was a prerequisite for Tumblr to grow from an idea in David’s head into the platform that it is today... During my tenure there, Tumblr never shied away from speaking out about causes that the team collectively believed in.”
But a former employee who recently left Tumblr told The Verge that some employees who wanted to work there because of its culture of community and activism have been feeling uneasy for at least the last several weeks because of what they feel is a shift in Tumblr’s priorities.
“Some of our previous stances on issues that are really important to Tumblr employees and its community are being silenced,” said the former employee. “We've been really noisy about things like net neutrality in the past. We asked the new Head, Simon Khalaf, about it in an all-hands a few weeks ago and he said it was ‘not his problem’ and ‘above his pay grade.’” A current employee and another former employee corroborated this account.
Simon Khalaf is the former CEO of Flurry, an analytics app that was acquired by Yahoo in 2014. Under Yahoo, Khalaf was given a myriad of responsibilities related mostly to mobile app development and publishing partners — including Yahoo News, Yahoo Sports, and Tumblr. He was promoted to senior VP in April 2015, then tapped by Oath CEO Tim Armstrong to head Media Brands and Products. Karp now reports directly to Khalaf.
The Verge spoke to two former employees and one current employee about net neutrality advocacy at the company. One former employee said that the “whole org” is still aggressive on net neutrality and other progressive causes — but that aggression “stops at leadership.”
In addition, at the all-hands meeting at Tumblr last month, all three sources say Khalaf gave a speech that shocked much of the staff. One source described the talk as “a whole bunch of terrible, shitty corporate speak,” in which Khalaf used military metaphors to explain how Tumblr could use content as “a weapon” to beat out its competition.
Two former Tumblr employees said they were alarmed when Khalaf chose Black Lives Matter as an example of a community that the company should focus on converting into Yahoo media consumers. One told The Verge, “Simon explicitly said that Black Lives Matter was an opportunity to [make] a ton of money.” The same person also recalled: “Tumblr employees totally freaked, but couldn't really be vocal about it because we were in [New York City] watching over video cast.” The other said that the meeting was “extremely uncomfortable” and “a lot of people were really upset,” leading to a heated conversation in Tumblr’s Slack, which is separate from Yahoo’s.
One Tumblr engineer did not recall the statement about Black Lives Matter, but remembered staffers discussing the generally “eyebrow-raising” all-hands in Slack, as well as the conversation turning into “a huge mess.” That conversation got back to Khalaf, and it fell to Karp to discipline the Tumblr staff in a weekly meeting. Khalaf did not respond to a request for comment, but a source close to him wanted it noted that Black Lives Matter was only one “community” that Khalaf referenced: he also discussed Game of Thrones and Manchester United fans.
Asked whether progressive politics were still a powerful force at Tumblr, Ari Levine, who worked as Tumblr’s brand strategist from July 2012 to November 2014, told The Verge in a phone call, “I imagine that remains innate on some level. But without question the people that saw their role at Tumblr as being able to empower change and be a voice and motivate the community to be a voice in a meaningful way, those people are gone.”
There has been a notable exodus of many of the individuals who spearheaded Tumblr’s net neutrality activism. That includes employees like former public policy lead Liba Rubenstein (now at 21st Century Fox) and general counsel Ari Shahdadi (now at BuzzFeed), who collaborated on Tumblr’s first major actions in support of net neutrality. Katherine Barna, head of communications at Tumblr since March 2011, left the company this month, writing that her biggest accomplishments during that time included “saving net neutrality for a minute there.” It’s not an overstatement: Tumblr even went to court to defend net neutrality in 2015, alongside the other NYC startups it had built an alliance with the year before, and tech policy lawyer Marvin Ammori told Motherboard at the time, “No companies deserve more credit than the New York tech community for the victory at the FCC.”
It’s important to note that the 2017 and 2014 battles for net neutrality are very different — even when completely divorced from Verizon’s involvement at Tumblr. Defenders of the open internet are facing a far more antagonistic FCC and Congress, as well as a president who does not seem to know what net neutrality is, and is far more likely to ignore the issue completely than invite David Karp back to the White House.
Whether or not Karp comes out in support of net neutrality, all of the employees we spoke with were still adamant about fighting for the cause. “We all love Tumblr and actually really care about its future and community,” said one former employee. “Many of the people who are still there are good people trying to do the right thing.”