Techcrunch and Twitter Documents: Was it Ethical? Was it Smart?

Photo cred: Marcin Wichary
Photo cred: Marcin Wichary

This is a collaborative post with myself and Sonny Gill. Both with slightly differing views on the topic, we’ve discussed the different sides of the issue and I’m personally torn, while Sonny is more confident of his stance.  In the spirit of a great collaborative post by Lauren Fernandez and David Mullen on a different issue, we’ve decided to take the same approach and work together to provide a thorough view of both sides of this issue.

If you haven’t heard about what’s going on, Michael Arrington, yesterday, claimed to have been sent 310 documents that were stolen by a hacker from Twitter including phone records, financial projections and more.  Arrington and TechCrunch then, after mulling it over, decided to post some of these documents. At the time of writing this post, they’ve only posted the Twitter TV Show document and the financial projection document.

Ethics Argument

For:

  • Techcrunch didn’t steal the information, the hacker did…is it not their responsibility to share newsworthy information that’s brought to their attention?
  • If the media never shared news that could hurt someone, the industry probably wouldn’t exist.  The most entertaining things seems to be news that someone doesn’t want you to share. Perhaps not ethical, but definitely a standard that has already been set.
  • They aren’t sharing any information that directly hurts anyone.  They specifically stated that they are not going to share some things, because it could be embarrassing for some individuals.
  • Controversial, risqué moves have always deemed great viewership and typically an increase in subscriptions and traffic. Why not please their numbers, as well as their advertisers?
  • Twitter is clearly still the talk of the town in the tech sector and now mainstream. If you were in TechCrunch’s shoes, would you leverage this power to drive even more eyes to your site, regardless if it could quite possibly hurt a platform that thousands flock to everyday?

Against:

  • This content was stolen.  It wasn’t shared willingly, it wasn’t leaked by an insider, it was taken against Twitter’s will.
  • If you wouldn’t post content that is embarrassing for some individuals, how is posting content that could hurt the company, and therefore every employee and individual who has a share in the company, any better?
  • Being a leader in the tech industry, there comes a responsibility and candor that people in this bubble expect. Clearly, all of that was thrown out of the window with how these documents were treated and power abused.
  • There’s also a responsibility to advertisers, to uphold a certain core integrity to the content you publish.

Was it Smart?

For:

  • Arrington can milk this for all it’s worth, and so far it’s worth hundreds of comments, and a great deal of traffic.  It’s also created multiple links to TechCrunch from mainstream media like the New York Times.
  • Looks like TechCrunch and Twitter are working together on this issue. Even more power for Michael and the crew over Twitter, and perhaps ‘special treatment’ on future feature releases, etc.
  • The tech bubble is abuzz and regardless of the outcome, everybody will forget it in a few weeks.
  • Maybe TechCrunch is showing Twitter some tough love to get their act together security wise, as they continue to grow their user base.

Against:

  • Advertisers could very well bow out and take their spend to more respectable, ethical blogs.
  • You’ve turned your tech savvy community into trolls who are looking for the next controversial hit of a post.
  • You’re quickly becoming the TMZ of the tech world. Loss of respect will send some readers elsewhere.
  • You could burn a bridge to a very valuable source of news, Twitter. Now, Twitter may actually go out of their way, to give their news to someone else before you.
  • By directing more attention to the ethics issue of posting the documents, you get more traffic, but also a lot more heat.  They could have just posted the information, like they would with any other story for which they get “tipped off”.

32 thoughts on “Techcrunch and Twitter Documents: Was it Ethical? Was it Smart?

  1. According to first amendment law and case precedences, as long as it is not the reporter who hacked and stole the material, then the journalist is well within their legal rights to publish the material (although in some cases, reporters may be forced to reveal their sources and then the whole shield law craziness comes into play).

    The ethical question is whether this hacked information is truly newsworthy, or are Arrington and TechCrunch setting out to sabotage the Twitter folks?

    I think the ethical thing to do would have been for Arrington to call up Biz and company to inform them that they need to tighten their security because of the hacked documents.

    The real story was that Twitter’s security was not strong enough and that important documents were stolen, not the material within the documents. I feel releasing information within these documents would only be necessary if illegal activities were presented.

    The actions by TechCrunch seem to say, “Hey hey! We have stolen documents! Let’s see what they say!” When it should’ve been (in my opinion) somewhere along the lines of “Twitter’s security needs to be tightened after valuable documents were hacked into.” The second one is the more newsworthy story.

    Best,

    Rich

    1. Thanks Rich,

      I see what you’re saying but I have to disagree that the information in the documents was less newsworthy.

      It’s certainly interesting that Twitter had a very obvious username and passwork on some important documents, but I don’t think that’s the real story compared to something like how Twitter plans to monetize. Everyone and their mother have been sharing their opinions on the future of twitter, and any insight into how Twitter sees it’s future certainly seems quite newsworthy. The New York Times doesn’t post multiple articles on a topic that isn’t newsworthy.

  2. I agree with Rich on TechCrunch’s legal right to publish the material. In fact, I might go a step further and say a media outlet has an obligation to publish such information if it is deemed newsworthy. Otherwise, you begin to undermine the foundation of investigative journalism.

    I can’t speak to TechCrunch’s motivations, but they claim to have evaluated the ethical implications of publishing what they had and were, as a result, selective in what they released. If true, that would make the decision on newsworthiness an editorial issue, not an ethical one.

    Information on Twitter’s internal assessment of its growth potential and strategy might be of interest to users who are, in some cases, investing in strategies that utilize the platform. But I agree that the issue of data security is a second, and perhaps more significant, story.

    1. Though the security issue is with Twitter and is the main issue, it’s not up to TechCrunch to post growth potential and strategies for the company.

      We have interests in every company’s growth potential, especially if we’re making products related to it, but does that mean we’re owed any sort of sneak peak into what they have planned on the business side of things? I don’t think so.

      1. I didn’t mean to suggest that we/the public is owed anything. We’re not. As a private company, Twitter is under no obligation to disclose financial information.

        The question is whether the information is newsworthy. I’d argue that it is.

        1. I believe security issues are, as that is the main problem here. But I just don’t feel that a company’s financial/growth strategies are something that is newsworthy. It more so makes Twitter to look like a bigger fool. Though I’d guess just as many ppl may be feeling the same way about TechCrunch.

  3. Journalists, according to the Constitution, can use information they are given if they did not steal it. This is a loose comparison, but consider Woodward and Watergate – some stolen information was passed on to him, right?

    My thoughts are that TechCrunch should have notified Twitter of what they had, and also had a response from them. The thing is, were these confidential documents? I know many companies that wouldn’t want their strategies and future projects out.

    I think it could have been executed better.

    1. Yea I don’t think (I don’t really know) that there are any legal ramifications for techcrunch here. I agree, the biggest issue with me isn’t necessarily what they did, but how they went about it.

  4. I think it is disgraceful what TechCrunch is doing right now publishing those documents.

    It makes a celebrity out of the hacker, and gives him notoriety…imagine how many hackers would love this attention.

    In addition, there should be some level of ethics here. Clearly, there is not. If something is stolen, ANYTHING, and given to someone else, that is no excuse for the recipient to ever use the information, and even worse, for their own advancement and revenue generating goals.

    Prominent websites like Techcrunch, Twitter etc should support each other, and help each other to fight hackers and spammers. Not celebrate them and enjoy increased pageviews from seeing one of them get attacked.

    Mashable were also sent the documents, and they chose not to publish them. Obviously Techcrunch lacks the integrity and decency to do the same.

    1. That’s interesting, I didn’t know Mashable was also sent the documents.

      The difference between Mashable and Techcrunch definitely seems to be made crystal clear in this issue and is a notable distinction. Mashable is an extremely popular and successful blog and they never resort to the type of “rumor” or “confrontation based” content that techcrunch relies on for traffic boosts.

  5. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the NYT re-published these figures. It seems that this should put to bed any ethical or legal questions, no?

    The only argument here, I think, is that it would have been “courteous” for TC to not publish documents. But… to echo what Bill said above, TC would be doing itself a dis-service by NOT publishing newsworthy information.

    Because of the fraternal nature of the this industry, questions like this come into play where they wouldn’t otherwise.

    1. Really interesting points Jason.

      Should we be condemning the NYT for sharing the information as well? At what point are news sites not responsible down the line?

      Also a very good point about the fraternal nature of this industry. Something to think about.

  6. Interesting discussion, hereabouts.

    In the Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg copped the classified papers he’d worked on in government and gave them to the NYT and others. The Nixon administration broke into the office of his psychiatrist to try and steal Ellsberg’s file and discredit him. Amid all this chicanery, the story got published.

    Two main reasons for thinking about this case alongside Twittergate.
    1. Newsworthy. The inner workings of one of the hottest companies around is news.
    2. Absent malice. I don’t know for sure, but one could assume that Techcrunch intended no malice in publishing the documents — regardless of whether they would do “harm” if released. The quotes around harm are because Twitter may not be able to prove any actual harm to its business. No matter where the source got the info, if an outlet believes their source, they can publish if they are absent malice.

    Those are journalistic reasons, so an ancillary question is whether Techcrunch is, in fact, journalism. If I had been an editor, I’d have sought comment from Twitter prior to publication, if for no other reason than to be sure the info was valid, correct and real. Did Techcrunch? I’d also want to be courteous to Twitter to preserve relationships with them. I’d still publish, but they’d have the heads-up it was coming.

    The Mashable vs Techcrunch comparison is interesting (Brian Yerkes), but an outlet’s style doesn’t change its journalistic responsibilities — 60 Minutes and the Today Show are both run out of news departments and staffed by (people who assert that they are) journalists. Alternative weeklies vs daily papers, etc.

    Confrontation and gossip are hallmarks of journalism for many years.

    Thanks!

    1. Great comment Sean when some very insightful points.

      To the point of Techcrunch needing to confirm with Twitter that these documents are real or legit, I don’t think Techcrunch is often concerned with legitimacy. They like to gossip about rumors. That kind of news requires no confirmation of legitimacy.

      Thanks for your contribution.

  7. Techcrunch has been losing credibility for a while. This is just the latest in a line of publishing stuff for eyeballs and nothing more (remember how many times Jason Calacanis asked for his private emails not to be published and they were?).

    Arrington is fast becoming the Rupert Murdoch of the tech world. I’d have more respect if TC had made Ev and Biz aware of the situation and ran a story about the security aspect. The financial records have nothing to do with TC unless Twitter suddenly goes public and into the Dow Jones.

    Score zero for ethics, 10 for sensationalistic journalism.

      1. Oh, I can be as critical as the next guy, mate, I just don’t let it out often… 😉

        I respect Arrington for what he’s achieved, and wrote a blog post to that effect a while back. But you know, there are ways of conducting business, and both Arrington and Techcrunch seem to be forgetting that lately.

        Is it because the likes of Mashable and ReadWriteWeb are snapping at TC’s heels? Maybe. Yet instead of turning into the website equivalent of “that guy”, why not keep the respect, grow the readership (and advertisers) with an ethical news style?

        Yes, everyone loves scandal and good gossip fodder, but it grates eventually and the backlash begins (think of Perex Hilton). If you look at the comments section of any TC post, you’ll often find people castigating TC as opposed to agreeing on its stance. That’s not the sign of a great topic; more the sign of questionable approaches.

  8. I don’t see why people are ganging up on TechCrunch and its editors. The information was out there thanks to the hacker. Its not like the published the credit card numbers – they posted relevant information of a company they track in the industry they follow.

    But more importantly, sometimes journalists have to make tough decisions and publish information that, while sensitive – and perhaps obtained in unusual ways, is still valuable to the public. Watergate is the classic example but warrant-less wiretaps, misconduct in the IRS, Woldcom, Enron, “Big Tobacco”, & the prisoner abuse in Abu Garib all came from “stolen” information; “stolen” being the unauthorized release of information.

    If TC hadn’t released that information, other news organizations would have. It could have been from the traditional TV/Radio/Print organizations or another Web 2.0 type blog like GigaOm, Mashable, or Webware. The reactions might have been different but because its TechCrunch and Michael Arrington who released the information people make a big deal of it. If the NY Times released this information, do you think they would have been so reserved with their commentary? Twitter (and TechCrunch) is part of the new media world that the NY Times and other newspapers can’t seem to get used to.

    While it might be painful for Twitter to have to go through this, in the end, it helps them. Because it helps them rethink their strategy in light of its disclosure. They need to stay one step ahead of its competitors and, now, it has to revisit those ideas. And with the public commenting on whether or not they like the strategies developed, Twitter gets free advice from its own community!! How can you not like that?

    Plus, the users (us) benefit greatly. We get to chime in on what we think of their future plans and voice our opinion on the company many of us love. If we like what they’re doing, we get to be excited for their upcoming work. If we hate it, we can voice our opinions and give them an opportunity to change course. And after its all said and done, we get a better Twitter or we get the next company who can do what Twitter might not have been able to do. Nevertheless, we still get something better.

    How can that be a bad thing?

    1. Possibly because this is the type of thing TC excel at – publishing what is still private information. We’re not stakeholders or shareholders in Twitter, we’re users. Financial information should only be available to shareholders and investors. Say the result of the publication had resulted in Twitter losing advertisers, investors, whatever, and the service had to fold. Would it still be acceptable then?

      Twitter could still have learned from this via private discourse between Arrington and Ev. Users are kept up-to-date with what affects us immediately via Twitter’s blog anyway. They already react to user suggestions (the @ feature and the fallout from that) – financial records aren’t (or shouldn’t be) part of the deal. It’s like a bank employee taking your financial information and selling to not only credit agencies but anyone you might ever encounter – future lovers, friends, work colleagues, etc. Do you really agree that should be up for discussion unless you choose it to be?

      1. Danny,

        How is TC publishing this information any different from the NY Times publishing leaked memos on the Iraq war effort of the previous administration? The NY Times published memos on key policy decisions & strategies on the war which could have put people’s lives at risk. A small startup’s TV ideas & dreams of getting 1b users is nothing. Rumsfeld & the Bush administration didn’t hand over the documents to the NY Times. Someone stole them and handed them to the press. In this case, someone sent the documents to TC & others. I don’t see the separation except that in one case, we’re talking about a Web 2.0 startup and in the other, we’re talking about keeping the lives of our service men & women, and the Iraqi police forces safe from harm.

        And what of the leaked documents on “Big Tobacco” and their efforts to get children to smoke which were authored in the 60s, & 70s and leaked in the mid-90s? They didn’t hand them over so they could be litigated against. Those documents were stolen. And what of Wikileaks? How come they get to publish all sorts of stuff but no one bats an eyelash when it happens. All of that information was private. It seems as if people are angry at TechCrunch just because its TechCrunch.

        Why is leaked private information in one example different from the other?

        WRT your analogy, my personal identifiable information is protected under the law – so are some transactions (not all). My salary is not. Similarly, it is not illegal to know income projections. If TC released the bank account numbers of Twitter & its employees, yeah, I’d say that’s a no-no. But projected income? No. Not in the private world. For public companies, the timing of the release of income projections are controlled to prevent insider trading. But the actual projection – even if it is ridiculously wrong – is not “private” information like a SSN.

        Let me say this of TechCruch vs Mashable: they are two different blogs tracking two different industries and, therefore, have a different focus from one another. TechCrunch looks after the startup/VC world using a business perspective; Mashable focuses on the social media with a personable touchy-feely perspective. Mashable not publishing the financials might not have anything to do with “ethics” but with the idea it goes against what they cover.

        Mashable lists the top 10 celebrities on Twitter & shows me the top 10 viral videos on YouTube. TechCrunch lists user growth, VC funding rounds & the type of funding rounds they are, and, most recently, an article on how Google’s earnings were broken down. Its like comparing the magazine Fast Company to The Economist. They sometimes cover the same topics but the approach is very different. One is touchy-feely, the other is business.

        And its not to say they can’t deviate from a set mission statement. Mashable has recently written articles on the RIAA’s campaigns against file sharers, copyright laws, & fair use. TechCrunch has also talked about gadgets, social media games, & viral videos. But the major approach they take in their writing is still very different from one another.

        1. It isn’t different, Christopher. This piece is about Techcrunch and Twitter. I have issues with any publication or company that conducts business in the less-than-ethical manner of Techcrunch in this instance (I’ve written numerous pieces on my own blog about ethical practices and business).

          The key word you use here is “stolen” – therefore not legal (to take it to its most basic). If information is known to be stolen, you’re simply becoming an accomplice to theft by publishing it. This goes for TC, Mashable, NYT or any other publication, print or otherwise.

          Yes, the TC and Mashable audience is usually very different but something like Twitter is much more mainstream than the usual TC fare. So comparisons in this case are valid.

          Personally, yes, leaked information will always sell newspapers/publications, but stolen information should be returned and who knows, may lead to an even more informative piece because you have the backing of the company in question?

          There’s a reason why theft is a crime; news “stories” shouldn’t be above that, or else we may as well all give up now.

          1. Danny,

            I think I see where you’re coming from. If I’m understanding you correctly, the mere fact the information was taken from Twitter against their will makes publishing it bad. Right? If I’m right in that interpretation, then whistle-blowing sites like Wikileaks are bad, too. And the NY Times would be wrong for publishing that leaked or stolen documentation, as well.

            I’d agree wholeheartedly with you IF the publishing organization stole the information because that’s espionage. Since TC and any other media organizations didn’t do the actual stealing, I’m less bothered by it and I’ll go back to my statements of how Twitter can learn from this, grow from it, and how its users can benefit and feel more connected to the organization (vs the community) it has built. But once some 3rd party has done the thieving, its a news story and I would never want the media to cover up a story unless there was a minor involved; that’s how we, as citizens, keep governments and big corporations in check.

            Nevertheless, it appears as if you’re more concerned about the nature in which the news was leaked to the press and not the fact it was TechCrunch that wrote articles on the information. I respect that. I don’t think TC did anything wrong or unethical, per se. Its not illegal either – the hack was. But I can see how the decision to publish information like this could be looked at as ungentlemanly, unsportsmanly, and done in bad taste considering some personal information was taken (although not published by TC or any other firm). Not unethical by journalistic standards, IMHO, but I’m no journalist; I just read the news…

            …and comment occasionally. 😉

            1. Yikes, running out of column width here… 🙂

              Yep, it’s more to do with the ethical side. I’m all for whistleblowing (funnily enough, I was part of a “business improvement” team back in my days at BT in the UK, and we encouraged employees to come forward and voice concerns without fear of reprisal under “whistleblower protection”). Sometimes issues that need dealing with have to be made public, even if they cause some squirming high up.

              I guess the main issue I have here with TC (and it’d be the same for any publication) is when do you decide what’s stolen and what’s leaked, and should they be handled or reported on differently?

              I’m all for free press and will defend journalistic rights to the hilt – the last thing I want is for the same kind of monitoring as China or Iran. I’m just concerned that publishing “stolen” stories will result in tighter restrictions in the media, when better dialogue between parties could see it all handled far better. And, yes, remain on the ethical side of the fence.

              Great conversation, here, Christopher, cheers! 🙂

    2. Interesting thoughts, Christopher!

      I agree, journalists do have to make some tough decisions and TechCrunch (whether it was tough or not) made the choice to publish some of the stolen documents. What I disagree with though is that Mashable and other sites would’ve published them anyway. There’s a reason no one has ever questioned Mashable’s ethics or that they bait with their content. Them taking the stance that TC has would have been very uncharacteristic, IMO.

      As for the users – you make some valid points that we have the ability to show our displeasure and likes of the information that’s out, and Twitter can utilize it to help them – but that’s where TC’s reputation comes into play. I’m not questioning their rep as a tech blog, of course they’ve earned that. But what I am questioning is with their borderline pieces comes TMZ-like reactions and comments. They have some very intellectual commentary, but with that also comes a ton of trolls and less value in continued discussions within the comments. Just my opinion, but I feel the respect of their blog, regardless of how many subscribers/readers they have, has changed immensely in the last 12 months.

  9. Great discussion. What shows the true credibility of techcrunch is that in their post they say the twitter gave them the go ahead to publish the documents. Check out @biz and the other twitter founders’ twitter updates to see how false that statement is. They did not give them the go ahead whatsoever. Techcrunch has zero credibility at this point.

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