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Someone Sends You Stolen Confidential Documents. Would You Publish Them?

ethics A story that has had the tech world abuzz involves a story on TechCrunch.  In that story, TechCrunch head honcho Mike Arrington wrote that a hacker had forwarded him a zip file containing over 300 confidential corporate and personal documents stolen from Twitter and Twitter employees.  Evidently, the hacker did this by hacking email accounts.  Arrington wrote that the zip file “contained 310 documents, ranging from executive meeting notes, partner agreements and financial projections to the meal preferences, calendars and phone logs of various Twitter employees.”

Photo by justinbaeder.

Arrington then admitted that TechCrunch was reviewing the documents, and that while they wouldn’t publish certain documents, such as those showing the passcodes to the Twitter offices, they were “going to release some of the documents showing financial projections, product plans and notes from executive strategy meetings.”  They were also “going to post the original pitch document for the Twitter TV show that hit the news in May, mostly because it’s awesome.”

Does this cross ethical lines?  At least in the initial post, Arrington’s criteria for whether or not an item should be posted seems to be whether or not it is newsworthy (“But a few of the documents have so much news value that we think it’s appropriate to publish them.”)  In the comments, and in a later post and its comments, Arrington defends his decision, making comparisons to how traditional news organizations run stories that are leaked to them.  He argues that if you only run stories based on information that you rightfully should possess, then you would have nothing to publish aside from company press releases.

My take?  TechCrunch has crossed the line here.  There is a difference between using information that an insider leaked to you, and running a story based on information that is illegally stolen by someone.  The difference is that the insider had the right to obtain the information, while the thief did not.

That’s not to say this is a bright line, and the only standard to apply.  One must also weigh whether releasing information is in the public interest, or whether it is merely interesting to the public.  As commenter Eric noted on TechCrunch, the “Pentagon Papers were in the public interest because it showed the government lied to us about Vietnam. The public interest overrode the Pentagon’s and Nixon Administration’s wishes to keep it under wraps.”

I would be shocked if there is any information in the Twitter papers that is in the public interest.  The information may interest the public, but that doesn’t make it in the public interest.  As some commenters at Tech Crunch have noted, the only good that will come from the release of this stolen information is to satiate people’s curiosity over Twitter’s plans, and to drive more hits to TechCrunch’s site.  TechCrunch typically does go for the sensational headline (seemingly without much fact checking at times), and in the past has been accussed of trolling and linkbaiting.  This latest move seems to follow that modus operandi.  To those who say that publishing the information will help startups like Twitter get their act together – hogwash.  If this scare alone doesn’t do it, then following through with the actual publishing won’t either.

What do you think?  Is this acceptable journalism, or has TechCrunch crossed the line?