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Ethics and the Morality of the Web

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Just when I was ready to reassure my older relatives that the internet is not the Wild West of technology and that they are as safe using email as they are using their mobile phones, a moral frenzy has stirred and has been placing its sticky paws all over the sites I read.

In case you haven’t heard, yesterday TechCrunch came into possession of a number of confidential Twitter documents and informed their readers that they were to begin publishing a number of them imininently, which they duly did. Now, while document leaks from disgruntled/loose-lipped sources is nothing new, what put the twist on the TechCrunch situation was that the documents hadn’t been leaked per se; rather, Twitter had been hacked and the individual responsible had then passed the documents on to TechCrunch.

Both comments on the TechCrunch thread and a short piece at Appfrica raised the issue of whether TechCrunch could publish the documents with a clear conscience. While TechCrunch’s Michael Arrington didn’t see much of a problem with the situation, a number of readers expressed different opinions. For me the issue is that the documents were not merely copies off a company machine or server, but that a crime (for that is what hacking is) was committed in acquiring them, and the taint of that misdeed cannot help but carry over to anyone making use of them knowing that fact.

News organisations, including blogs, are always eager to be the first, to get the scoop ahead of everyone else. TechCrunch were not the only website that the hacker sent the documents to, and in one sense, they had to publish, because if they didn’t one of their competitors would. While I hold no truck with Mr. Arrington’s comment that “News is stuff someone doesn’t want you to write,” I can understand the commercial pressure that TechCrunch would have felt compelled them to publish.

And yet…. scroll down further down the comments and you will see that Mr. Arrington also states that he would not want anyone to publish any documents that were stolen from TechCrunch. And there lies the rub: TechCrunch have essentially done something they would definitely not want to endure themselves were they do find themselves in the same unfortunate quandry.

What I take away from this whole sorry debacle is that while there might be some anger at Twitter for having such lax security that documents could be stolen via Google Apps and some guessed passwords, it is less of a PR disaster for them than it is for TechCrunch. It is easier to feel sympathy with a victim of a hacking than those who make use of the spoils of such an exercise. By taking such obvious glee in publising criminally obtained documents, TechCrunch may actually have shot themselves in the foot.

I follow TechCrunch on Twitter, but have never added them to my RSS feeds, as I have always felt that that I get all the information they publish from other sources that I read on a more regular basis anyway. I can only wonder now whether they will continue to receive reliable information from their sources, or if those sources will favour other outlets before hawking their wares at TechCrunch. Knowing that they have no compunction about confidentiality or even the potential damage they could do to a company in their pursuit of headlines, would you trust them to have the self-discipline to embargo any information until you were ready to release it? Knowing what they have done now, would they still be your first port of call if you had an exclusive to offer?

Silicon Valley is an incredibly incestuous place, and while this may barely seem like tittle-tattle for those who don’t pay attention to such things, there are important PR implications. Trust is an important factor for many businesses, as is goodwill, and TechCrunch have just removed any reason for Twitter to extend them any of the former. I’m sure that TechCrunch will survive, as it is a big player, but I do feel they have burnt through an enormous amount of karma by their actions. I can only hope for everyone’s sake that the fallout from this fiasco is minimal and short-lived. And that there aren’t any hackers out there who will now take it upon themselves to carry out some sort of twisted retribution on TechCrunch.

[Image by JimW]

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