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New technology supercharges debate on public domain

When TechCrunch website posted Twitter material leaked by a hacker, the computer-using public had plenty to say about it. But was it trafficking in stolen property or just practicing good journalism?

July 24, 2009|JAMES RAINEY

Even a new-age reading of the 10 Commandments would seem to make it quite clear: Thou shall not steal. Thou shall not covet thy neighbor's computer files and text messages.

But one news story in recent days suggests it's not quite that simple. New technology has supercharged the debate over what should be in the public domain but done nothing to clarify the answers.

One of the principal differences between the conversation today and those in the era of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers is that the audience is participating and dissenting, in real time, as journalists decide what subjects are fair game.

The sausage-making seems to be in almost full public view, as it was last week when the TechCrunch website published portions of internal documents from Twitter that had been purloined by an unidentified computer hacker.

TechCrunch took a beating on multiple websites and chat rooms, with many readers accusing the website of trafficking in stolen property in a way it wouldn't have if, say, the Twitter secrets had been taken in a commercial burglary.

But despite the seamy cloak-and-dagger feel about the source of the information, it seems to me that the website and its editor, Michael Arrington, acted in good faith and were far from the soulless accomplices that some argued.

In short, the website obtained information, verified its authenticity, asked the right questions about what was of valid public interest and culled the merely prurient before publishing a fraction of more than 300 Twitter documents.

As Arrington explained in one posting last week, that meant holding back, for example, security pass codes and job interview summaries, which TechCrunch judged to be too intrusive or embarrassing.

The site posted, instead, information that cut more to the nature of Twitter's business: financial projections, product plans and notes from executive strategy meetings and, as Arrington told the New York Times, "talk about the Facebook threat and when and how they might sell the company," adding "that is immensely interesting from a news perspective."

The TechCrunch crew correctly noted that the public seemed much less exercised about previous instances in which media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, published internal company documents from Yahoo and other firms.

In innumerable instances over the decades, as momentous as the Pentagon Papers and as mundane as the memorandum on some city manager's employment contract, journalists have depended on internal documents to tell the real story.

In many of those cases, the documents were effectively "stolen," pushed by employees who ignored confidentiality rules to put information into the public domain. Quoting British newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe, Arrington argued: "News is what somebody, somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising."

That notion maintains a lot of power, particularly when it comes to exposing how the government and businesses affect regular people. I worry that this exceptional status for the press has less support than ever from a public subjected to endless harangues about the evils of the mainstream media.

"So sad that TechCrunch plans to publish STOLEN information," said one reader on the site when the news broke last week. "No better than the hacker. Shame, shame, shame."

Another bemoaned any attention that would give the Internet thief "the e-fame he is looking for."

In the Twitter case, though, it seems that TechCrunch made a good faith effort to do what journalists are supposed to do. It tried to bring more information to its audience, while holding back other documents that could cause needless harm.

The website started from safe ground, with no evidence it made any effort to promote the hacker's illegal intrusion. Once it had some 310 Twitter documents, it shared copies with executives at the social network and even tried to assist Twitter to understand how it might prevent future intrusions.

Arrington didn't respond to my message this week, so I couldn't get more details. But the site apparently made an admirable effort on one other journalistic front: assessing the motives of the twentysomething Frenchman, known as Hacker Croll, who dug out the Twitter documents.

Croll seems to be a voyeur, preoccupied with technology and willing to spend months cracking security systems just for the "high" of getting in. If he had an economic or competitive motivation, TechCrunch couldn't find it.

Arrington and Co. lost me with at least one argument, though. That's when the editor said in one of his postings last week that the decision to release some Twitter docs was easier because it was clear that somebody would publish the material.

"I hear that from my kids all the time, 'Everyone else is going to do it,' " said Kelly McBride, who serves on the ethics faculty at the Poynter Institute for professional journalists. "That's a really lame basis for making an ethical decision."

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