TechCrunch Ethics And The Twitter Leaks

Last night, TechCrunch editor Michael Arrington revealed that he had received hundreds of documents about Twitter sent by someone who had hacked into the company’s system. Arrington said he planned to post some documents related to Twitter’s business. This set off a firestorm of debate about the ethics. With Arrington posting a follow up to his original post here.

I was truly amazed at the overwhelmingly negative feedback from the TechCrunch community about his decision. You can see the harshness continue on Twitter here.

I posted my own thoughts in the comment section, which I’m re-posting here:

I’m amazed at the harsh tone here. First of all, bravo for having this conversation in public before publishing. Though I’m guessing TC has considered the legal ramifications, my understanding is that the liability lies with whoever stole the docs, not someone who publishes them, unless TC instigated the theft. I’m guessing the answer to that is, “No.”

Beyond that, publishing such leaked memos or documents is hardly unusual or extreme. (See the Pentagon Papers). Of course, this is hardly a matter of national security. But as Arrington references, the “peanut butter memo” is just one of about a million such instances of leaked internal documents being posted. Just check out All Things Digital to see a pretty steady stream of leaked internal emails from Yahoo execs.

Protecting the privacy of third parties such as job interviewees, is the right thing to do. Such info could potentially destroy their careers. No reason to involve them unless there was a figure of significance (i.e., if it turned out Eric Schmidt had interviewed to be Twitter CEO).

The real question then is this: Is the information of news value? I would say given Twitter’s explosive growth, and it’s growing role in news and information, anything that speaks to its business model and strategic plans has high news value.

If you disagree, that’s understandable. But try this: Stop reading leaks about new Apple products, or Google features, or whatever gadget or online service you follow. These things are all regularly the result of such leaked documents.

As long as reasonable steps are being taken to protect innocent parties, and not endangering anyone, then publishing is reasonable.

UPDATE: Though there’s not much new to this, all the documents have been posted. But the conversation over the ethical dilemmas have continued. Let me post to two  of the best blog posts I’ve seen, presenting the opposting cases for publishing or not publishing.

First comes this post from Ben Sheffner, a copyright/First Amendment/media/entertainment attorney and former journalist who asks: Why the hand-wringing over TechCrunch’s decision to publish ‘hacked’ Twitter documents? Sheffner writes:

“Why was TechCrunch‘s decision to publish some of the hacked documents any different from what mainstream publications like the Times and Wall Street Journal do countless times every day: print information and documents leaked from employees to reporters, without company permission?”

From the opposing corner comes this post from Dave Morgan, a former newspaper attorney, and now CEO of Simulmedia. Morgan insists: Yes, it’s stealing — by any name. He writes:

“Before becoming an entrepreneur, I was a newspaper lawyer, so I’ve dealt with this issue before. In my opinion, what Arrington and TechCrunch did here is despicable (disclosure: my company Simulmedia shares an investor with Twitter, Union Square Ventures, though I’ve had no discussions with any of them about this).”

I continue to be amazed how widely people disagree on this issue, both from the traditional journalism side, and the start-up/engineer side.

I had the following tweet exchanges on Thursday with Pierre Omidyar, the eBay founder (read from the bottom up):

And then my former Merc colleague Dan Gillmor falls squarely on the other side when he writes:

“This particular episode, however, makes me want to take a shower. I wouldn’t have published the material, but that’s just my personal stance. As the saying goes, what the public is interested in may not be in the public interest.

TechCrunch’s Mike Arrington is almost certainly within his rights to post at least some of this material — though no way would his lawyers let him post it all, if it contains everything he’s said it contains — even if what he’s doing is, IMO, supremely cynical. Especially puke-worthy is Arrington’s public agonizing about whether (and what) to post. It strikes me, whether he intends it or not, as linkbait designed to pull lots and lots and lots of traffic.”

Finally, from Sam Bayard at the Citizen Media Law Project, get the whole legal analysis: “First Amendment Protects TechCrunch’s Publication of (Some) Hacked Twitter Documents.”


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