Reddit AMA: Skype founder finds it hard to say who to believe in PRISM scandal

Jaan Tallinn also says Microsoft is trying to 'squeeze out as much value' from Skype as it can now that it owns it

Jaan Tallinn

Jaan Tallinn

The finger-pointing about who is to blame in the unfolding PRISM Internet-spying scandal makes it hard to tell who to believe, says Jaan Tallinn, a founder of both Skype and Kazaa.

"Basically we have the word (and documents) of a whistleblower against the word of PR departments of respected tech companies," Tallinn says in a Reddit AMA (on the I AM A... subreddit) chat session conducted online today. "[W]ithout knowing the details (just having read couple of articles from [Hacker News]) I would assign equal credence to both sides."

PRISM is the classified U.S. government real-time surveillance program that monitors all traffic running through the networks of major Internet providers including Skype, according to published reports.

[ BACKGROUND: Reports: NSA, FBI collecting content from Google, Facebook, other services

HELP: How to integrate Skype with Microsoft Lync ]

In fact Skype servers are singled out in a documents obtained by The Guardian newspaper for experiencing exponential growth in their use under PRISM.

Tallinn left Skype and went on to help found Internet file-sharing company Kazaa. Currently he is running MetaMed, a personalized medical research company.

Skype was sold to eBay ($2.6 billion), then to Silver Lake Partners, Joltid, CPPIB and Andreessen Horowitz ($2.75 billion), and then to Microsoft ($8.5 billion). Skype is now a division of Microsoft with its head reporting directly to CEO Steve Ballmer.

Tallinn says Microsoft stands out among the other purchasers in that it is actively developing Skype. "[S]ince the earlier acquirers basically left the company mostly untouched (e.g., it continued being a Luxembourg business), whereas Microsoft seems to be actually trying to squeeze out as much value (a.k.a. "synergies") from Skype as possible," he writes. "Microsoft was certainly different, (eg, actually integrating Skype into their platforms and products)."

Tallinn also addressed why Kazaa became bogged down with adware that was considered by the security community as malware.

"What happened was that a) Kazaa (like Napster before it) failed to negotiate licensing deals with content companies, while b) the 'paid downloads' industry [adware] was offering extremely lucrative deals," he writes. "One thing to remember is that malware industry pretty much started around then and co-evolved with the likes of Kazaa - so it was constantly trying to find a balance between aggressiveness and sustainability, much like real world viruses are, I might add."

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Questioners during the Reddit session thanked Tallinn for creating Skype because it allowed them to stay in touch with their families. "Thanks," he writes. "I once did a quick fermi calculation at a party to estimate that I can take credit for roughly a million saved human relationships."

Tallinn says that in the world of business he most respects Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and co-founder of Tesla Motors and PayPal. "It's uncanny how much he resembles Hank Rearden!" he writes. Rearden is a fictional character in the Ayn Rand novel "Atlas Shrugged" who founds a steel company that develops an alloy stronger than steel.

He says he doesn't have a specific person in business he least admires, but describes a type: "I would probably go with people who optimize their companies to be as fashionable as possible in order to attract investments (vs doing something that makes an actual difference)."

Tim Greene covers Microsoft and unified communications for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at tgreene@nww.com and follow him on Twitter @Tim_Greene.

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