Stephen Foley: A Murdoch for the Twitter age

Michael Arrington’s TechCrunch blog is embroiled in a hacking scandal of its
own, after publishing secret internal documents that were stolen from
Twitter. An anonymous hacker, calling himself Hacker Croll, obtained more
than 300 electronic files, ranging from Twitter’s financial projections and
information about negotiations with Facebook and Google, to personal staff
details and the names of every senior Valley executive who has asked to work

Scintillating stuff, by all accounts, and an embarrassment to Twitter just as
it appears to be completing its journey from internet curio to full-blown
media powerhouse. If Twitter’s employees can’t keep their own passwords safe
from hacking, can it really be trusted with its users’ information?

These issues seem to be exercising the Twitterati less, however, than the
question of journalistic ethics ? always an earnestly debated topic in the
US. TechCrunch has published only a fraction of the documents that landed in
its lap, but many readers are up in arms, saying it has crossed a line by
using material known to have been obtained illegally.

It’s grey, not black and white. So grey, that TechCrunch staff debated for
eight hours what to do. Mr Arrington says that journalists have always used
leaked information, and he quotes Britain’s own Lord Northcliffe in his
defence: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the
rest is advertising.”

My gut says that Mr Arrington’s justification doesn’t cut it. Leaking and
hacking are not exactly the same thing; people and corporations do have an
expectation of privacy; journalists have to justify using material obtained
through subterfuge. We’ve even got it written down in Britain in the Press
Complaints Commission code of conduct. Unless journalists rule out the
routine use of deceitfully obtained information, a whole industry will
spring up pursuing it for us ? as the intertwined wiretapping convictions of
Clive Goodman of the News of the World and private detective Glenn Mulcaire

The truly bizarre thing is that Mr Arrington went in for a penny, but not for
a pound. He is self-righteously withholding the juicy details about
Twitter’s partnership discussions with Google and Microsoft, which he says
are “too sensitive”.

What we learnt instead is that, at least back in February, Twitter was
expecting to bring in its first revenue around now, in the third quarter of
2009. It also has ambitions to be the first social network business with a
billion users (“1st to a Billion = Awesome”) but fears Google or
Facebook could crush them. Sweet, unsurprising stuff, but hardly of vital
public interest.

I can’t get as exercised as some, however, and I think we are all going to
have to take a pragmatic approach to these issues in the new media era. Even
the British PCC says it will consider the extent to which any information
might be about to get into the public domain ? and the hacker could at any
moment post the material himself on the internet somewhere. Mr Arrington may
well have found himself writing the same stories in a few days’ time anyway.
On that “sensitive” information he is withholding, he still might.

I will confess to being actually rather chuffed that Hacker Croll decided to
email TechCrunch with his stolen goodies, rather than plant them on an
obscure webpage, to be found and spread virally. Journalists have not been
disintermediated entirely. It has been a coming-of-age month for several
West Coast blogs. proved it was a reliable media player, breaking
news of Michael Jackson’s death. Now four-year-old TechCrunch cements its
position as a go-to source for news and gossip about the tech industry. Mr
Arrington really might grow up to be Rupert Murdoch.

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