Twitter vs. TechCrunch: Heads in the clouds... and elsewhere

When a hacker steals corporate information, is it ethical for a news site to post it? That's today's kerfuffle engulfing Twitter and TechCrunch. Cringe has a few thoughts

Whenever Michael Arrington posts anything on TechCrunch with a theme of "Ethics 101," you know you're in for some unintentional high comedy. Such was the case today when someone calling himself "Hacker Croll" dumped a carton of internal Twitter documents on TechCrunch's doorstep.

Apparently Twitter keeps all its corporate docs in a Google cloud, and some hacker with a lot of time on his hands was able to use Google's password recovery tools to gain access to the goods. But Croll didn't just grab official Twitter memos; he (she?) managed to hack Twitter founder Evan Williams' PayPal, Amazon, Apple, and AT&T accounts, as well personal information for other Twitter employees and the names of people who've interviewed for jobs there.

[ This isn't the first time Cringely and the 'Crunch have tangled. See the earlier post: "Conversation? What conversation?" | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

In a blog post, Captain Crunch publicly debated whether to post some of the documents, many of which were of a highly personal nature. Then he decided to publish some of them anyway (though he says he would not publish overtly personal information).

The funny thing is, lots of TechCrunch readers -- most of whom are loyal to Arrington in a way unmatched by anybody this side of Rush Limbaugh fans -- didn't want him to publish any of it. The Guardian's Charles Arthur puts it nicely:

His readers were less impressed - and if TechCrunch's readers aren't impressed, you can bet that what has been done is really unimpressive.

In a Twitpoll (yes, there really is such a thing) posted by Felipe Coimbra, roughly 54 percent of Twitter responders said publishing the docs would be unethical. Only a third supported putting the docs online.

Yet did that deter the Arringtard? Not a bit. In a response to the responses, he wrote:

We publish confidential information almost every day on TechCrunch. This is stuff that is also "stolen," usually leaked by an employee or someone else close to the company, and the company is very much opposed to its publication. In the past we've received comments that this is unethical. ...But on our end, it's simply news.

If you disagree with that, OK. But then you also have to disagree with the entire history of the news industry. "News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising," is something Lord Northcliffe, a newspaper magnate, supposedly said. I agree wholeheartedly.

Alrighty then. Let's say I suddenly came into the possession of nude photos of Mr. Arrington. One would assume somebody would want to suppress those photos, if not Captain Crunch himself. Useful for frightening small children? Certainly. Newsworthy? Probably not, unless he's got his private portfolio data tattooed on his nether bits.

The real test here is not "Does somebody want to suppress this?" or "Do we have information no other news outlet has?" or "Will this get us a lot of attention and/or traffic?" The real test is, Does releasing this information serve the public good? If not, then the rest doesn't matter. Of course, that means exercising good judgement, something that appears to be in short supply over in Crunchville.

As I write this, TechCrunch has only published an arguably newsworthy document -- a pitch for a ridiculous TV show involving Twitter. That's a perfectly legit use of a leak, I think. Let's hope they stop there.

You can buy a badge, a gun, and a dozen donuts, but that doesn't make you a cop. You can publish a Web site and hire reporters and even get syndicated by the Washington Post, but that doesn't make you a journalist, let alone an expert on journalistic ethics.

There is a real story here, and it's about the wisdom of running your business inside a leaky cloud and whether Google needs to do a serious rethink about its password recovery tech.

Twitter has its head in the clouds. Arrington's is stuck in a somewhat more earthbound extremity. I'm pretty confident Twitter will do something to address this problem quickly, if it hasn't already. Arrington, though? Don't hold your breath.

Should confidential corporate info remain confidential? If not, who gets to decide? Post your thoughts below or e-mail me:

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