Spotify’s attempts to silence a whistleblower

Daniel Ek’s heavy-handed approach to protecting his “second-in-command”.

In July 2009, Eliot Van Buskirk (Data Storyteller at Spotify and a former adjunct professor at NYU) wrote an article in Wired Magazine about the fledgeling music streaming company Spotify’s plans to conquer the US market.

In the article, he talked about Shakil Khan’s (aka Shak) role as “second-in-command” (to CEO Daniel Ek) at the company.

Shak happens to be my younger brother.

A month later, early Facebook backer Sean Parker wrote a lengthy email to both Ek and Shak waxing lyrically about Spotify and offering them his assistance and support.

A copy of this email was published by Business Insider.

Well, the rest to a certain extent is history.

In March 2012, Kara Swisher penned an article about how Shak was leaving Spotify to join the social media network Path.

Ek himself told Ms. Swisher that “[he was] sad to see [Shak] go”.

However, a few months later Ek strangely sent out a tweet telling the world that Shak was still part of the Spotify setup.

https://twitter.com/eldsjal/status/249178455768449025

So whilst Ek himself had told Kara Swisher that he was sad to see Shak go, he was publically telling people that Shak was still working at Spotify.

Whilst working at Spotify as the Head of Special Projects, in May 2014 Shak gave an extensive interview about his role at Spotify and detailed how he is the ‘eyes and ears’ of Spotify CEO Daniel Ek.

Shak then later got involved with the student accommodation start-up Student.com and managed to raise millions of dollars for the company — largely through introductions made by Ek. This included a substantial investment from Jim Breyer too.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/stevenbertoni/2016/04/13/student-com-scores-powerful-silicon-valley-connection-with-breyer-capital-investment/

However, by late 2016, Student.com was in serious financial difficulty — with Shak being almost bankrupt and owing people millions of dollars. He then also had a heart attack.

It is not surprising that given such a situation, Shak was keen to keep details of his illness confidential.

However, with an impending stock market listing for Spotify, Shak’s financial situation together with health problems posed a very serious issue for Spotify. This was even more so given Shak’s extensive criminal record for theft and serious drug-dealing.

In May 2017, Shak’s lawyers confirmed to me in writing that given his role at Spotify, details of his (confidential) illness had been disclosed to all major investors in the company.

This raises a very serious question. Why would Spotify feel the need to disclose such confidential information of a staffer to all their major investors?

Were they under any legal obligations to do so, or is it just their habit of disclosing such information willy nilly, or was it due to the fact that given Shak had a highly senior role within the organisation (second in command), such disclosure was compulsory.

A week or so later, Shak also did a podcast with the tech-blogger Om Malik where he totally downplayed his criminal record, the problems at Student.com and made seriously disparaging comments about our late father, including being physically abused by him in the summer of 1989 — when in fact our father was living in Pakistan at the time.

https://om.co/2017/05/11/the-om-show-podcast-wguest-shakil-khan/

I have asked Om Malik and Shak, on numerous occasions, to correct the false comments about my late father, but they have refused to comply.

Ek has also liked the podcast on social media and shared it with his 100’s of thousands of followers, knowing full well that it is totally false. He too has refused to publish a retraction.

As I tried to tell Shak and Ek that such tactics were somewhat ‘unethical’, I received the following email from Spotify General Counsel Horacio Gutierrez.

Horacio Gutierrez <horacio@spotify.com> 27 September 2017 at 19:58

Your unsolicited contacts with Spotify

To: Tanweer Khan

My name is Horacio Gutierrez and I am the General Counsel of Spotify. I write to ask for a call with you as soon as practicable to discuss the multiple emails you have sent Spotify and a number of third parties.

Up until this point we have patiently refrained from taking any steps regarding what we perceive as unfounded claims and misguided threats you make in those emails, but our patience has run out and I have been instructed to act unless the incessant unwanted contacts stop immediately.

I’m hoping we can avoid the costly and protracted actions that will follow, including those involving your employer, so and I’m reaching out to you in good faith to discuss before we act.

Please let me know if you have time for a call tomorrow September 28, or Friday September 29 for a call, and if so what number I should call.

Sincerely, Horacio Gutierrez

What is extremely odd is that whilst Mr Gutierrez sent the email to my personal email address, given that I had contacted Shak, Ek and others from that same address, Mr Gutierrez wanted to take costly and protracted actions against me and my employer.

I can’t for the life of me understand why Spotify would need to involve my employer in a private dispute — unless this was some kind of a veiled threat by Mr Gutierrez.

Furthermore, who at Spotify had instructed him to take action. Presumably Ek himself.

If that was not enough, In March 2018, Shak told Billboard magazine that he was never an employee at Spotify — having failed in February 2018 to get an injunction to stop me from raising my concerns about his role at Spotify and why his background and details must be disclosed as part of any listing process. This is very odd especially as Shak’s lawyers had admitted a few months earlier that given his role at Spotify details of his illness had been disclosed to all major investors in the company.

https://www.billboard.com/articles/business/8275238/shakil-khan-spotify-role-tanweer-feud-listing-nyse

If details of his confidential illness had been disclosed to all major investors whilst Spotify was a private company, surely the same disclosure requirements would, as a minimum, apply when Spotify went public.

Bizarrely, Spotify told Billboard magazine that they were not involved in this dispute whatsoever and that it was just a family matter. If that really is the case then why was Mr Gutierrez being instructed (presumably by Mr Ek) to send threatening emails?

What we do know is that as part of this episode, Shak was looking to take me to trial for harassment, and in the interim period, he and Ek had deleted various articles that confirmed Shak’s role at Spotify.

Specifically, the AllThingsD article mentioned above had been brought to Ek’s attention on May 26th 2018. We know that four days later (on 30th May 2018) he met Ms Swisher in person. The following day Ms Swisher de-activated the entire AllThingsD website.

With such an article confirming Shak’s role at Spotify in the public domain, Ek would have been in serious trouble and he needed to get this removed.

A few days after that when Shak and Ek realised that we would most likely have a copy of the article anyway, Shak abruptly discontinued his harassment claim against me. His lawyers wrote to me advising that he had discontinued his claim — at the request of his friends — as he didn’t want my side of the story in the public domain.

Kara Swisher only re-activated the AllThingsD website after she realised that she may have inadvertently helped Ek commit securities fraud.

It is a real shame that Ek has resorted to such tactics in order to prevent the truth being told to investors. If he had nothing to hide or worry about, he wouldn’t have instructed his GC to threaten me, removed various articles and publications from Spotify’s website and his social media accounts, and he certainly would not have had needed to enlist an influential tech journalist to de-activate a website that had been dormant for over 4 years.

The financial markets rely on companies providing investors with accurate and timely disclosure of material information.

With Ek’s heavy-handed approach in trying to silence me, one must ask if Ek is prepared to go to such lengths to protect his ‘second-in-command’ then what else is he prepared to do.

Perhaps it is time for Daniel Ek, Horacio Gutierrez, Kara Swisher, Om Malik or Shak to do the decent thing and admit the truth — or is that too much to ask?

(A copy of this article was sent to Jane Norberg — Chief of The Securities and Exchange Commission’s Office of the Whistleblower — on Sunday 10th February 2019)