Okay, before we get started, here’s the catch-up on Twittergate for those of you who aren’t up on the 24-hour tech news cycle:
- A hacker broke into Twitter-owned file stores and copied hundreds of documents
- Techcrunch received these hundreds of confidential Twitter documents as did several other individuals.
- Michael Arrington, founder of techcrunch, is posting a limited amount of the information he received.
- In true blogging style, Arrington has openly discussed the ethical dilemma he is faced with in real-time, something you rarely if ever see from the mainstream press. Arrington is talking about not just what was in those documents, but also being very transparent about how he got those materials
So what happened next? Some serious hating on Arrington ensued which got me to thinking about this entire event.
So here are my main contentions on the matter:
- The main action Arrington took that was different than how most other journalists would handle this was that he was transparent about how he got the information.
- If you have a serious problem with what Arrington did in this case, then you have a general problem with the institution of news in the United States.
- There is a very good argument that what Arrington did in this case was at least as ethical if not more so than how stolen Trade Secrets are normally handled by journalists
And instead of a full treatise attempting to prove those arguments, I figured a little Q and A might actually be more effective. Fire away in the comments section to debate the points!
Skeptic Q: A crime was committed to get Arrington the information. Doesn’t that make Arrington a dealer in stolen goods?
- Yes, Arrington was dealing in stolen goods. But Arrington’s actions have broad 1st amendment protection:
- Most journalists do this regularly, they are just not so transparent about it. Even this morning’s news about the latest termsheet from Microsoft and Yahoo! discussions is quite possibly the dissemination of material that qualifies as a trade secret. I could come up with 100 examples here. I recommend you scan the headlines of the Business Press on any given day to find a few.
- The uproar over this in many ways is that people got a very inside, very candid, dirty look at how the sausage is made. It makes people feel uncomfortable to see that–like going to a slaughterhouse– but overall it’s a very good thing for folks to have their heads abruptly removed from the sand. The part that is regrettable is that in Arrington’s candor, he became the object of the abhorrence with the sausage making
Skeptic Q: Isn’t there something different about a leak of Trade Secrets vs. a hacker stealing them?
- It’s the difference between an “inside job” and an “outside job”
- The hacker committed two crimes (hacking, and theft of Trade Secrets), where as the insider committed one (theft of Trade Secrets).
- In either case, the journalist (in this case Arrington) is generally protected to publish what comes into his or her inbox.
- Is it okay that theft happens from insiders, but somehow worse when it happens through outsiders?
- Bad analogy: If there was a diamond heist committed by insiders at a jewelry store vs. a straight out robbery, should the insiders get a pass? Sure, maybe the outsiders used force to get the gems, which means they also may have committed an additional crime, but a heist is a heist.
Skeptic Q: Just because other journalists do it doesn’t make it right…
- Totally fair Argument
- The news business is FOR PROFIT. It’s in their interests to publish news that draws an audience and makes them money. It is also highly competitive. If someone else draws your audience tomorrow, you’re out of business.
- This has caused an environment that sacrifices some notions of ethics to stay in business.
- My main contention is that though not necessarily right by the strictest moral code, but theft has fueled the news machine for hundreds of years. Theft of trade secrets is common, and sometimes (though not in this case) the journalist is involved in even “conspiring” with the thief… i.e. “I’m going to need more to run the story… do you have a document that says XYZ?”
- The problem is a completely free press though it has many benefits to society, can ultimately encourage crimes to be committed. We see such crimes regularly committed for the purpose of disseminating to the media all of the time.
- I’m certainly open to how to change the system. Where to draw the line is a very difficult task
Skeptic Q: I can understand if there was some misconduct or moral imperative being looked into, but in this case there was none. Shouldn’t that effect the ethical conclusions about this case?
- The moral imperative question is easy. If there was serious moral import in this case, there would be no question at all. If Twitter was committing fraud, or stealing diamonds from banks to fund their business, I don’t think there would be a single complaint about Techcrunch’s actions.
- The real question is that in cases *without* moral imperative, should journalists continue trading in stolen information that has little to none moral import?
- News business is competitive
- To stay in business they must break stories
- Everybody trades in stolen property in order to continue breaking relevant stories in order to stay in business.
- Is the journalist at fault for wanting to keep his job which requires dealing in stolen property?
Skeptic Q: I still feel that Arrington was more wrong than the average journalist
- Arrington brought an extreme amount of openness to the party that was unnerving for people who do not understand how the news system works, or disturbing for people who are not used to that kind of openness. He showed us how the sausage is made, and it definitely ain’t pretty, and makes a lot of us feel uncomfortable.
- Arrington was blogging real-time as his Inbox was filling up. The emotion of a hungry hard core news person comes through in that first post. Not everybody is comfortable with that. And that’s where Arrington’s lightning rod style comes in. Even with the facts on his side, his style isn’t elegant and can certainly rub some people the wrong way. But it doesn’t change the facts, and it doesn’t make him morally wrong as many detractors like to claim.
Skeptic Q: How the heck was Arrington in this case as ethical or *more* ethical in his handling of Trade Secrets in this case than the average one
- He was fully transparent about how he got the information. This is atypical in the business. In fact, if Arrington had not been this transparent, simply stating that an anonymous source had provided the document, there would have been ZERO uproar about this matter. Most news organizations like to stay out of the story itself, and generally like to keep the spotlight off of how they get their materials. The typical news outlet would have debated this in the newsroom but left the debate there.. AND they certainly would not take it into the public.
- It can be argued that journalists dealing with their sources of trade secrets are halfway conspiring with the leaker to get those documents. This activity is shady at best, and criminal at worst (without 1st amendment protection), but is rarely prosecuted or enforced. Arrington simply opened his email box in this particular case.