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As a reporter who blogs — and who has been competing against Michael Arrington for the past couple of years — I’ve been helplessly fascinated by the Twittergate debate of the last couple of weeks. It is a perfect storm of technology news and journalism ethics in the digital age, pitting widely popular microblog service Twitter versus hated, envied, and also popular Arrington and his TechCrunch publication.
And today, I got to enjoy another round of the debate, courtesy of Arrington’s interview with broadcast journalist Charlie Rose. Despite heavy public criticism and the continued, if veiled, threat of a lawsuit from Twitter, Arrington is sticking by his decision to publish stolen documents from Twitter.
“In this case, I think I absolutely did the right thing,” he tells Rose, “and I wouldn’t do things any differently.”
What is Twittergate? A hacker, in case you haven’t heard, illegally broke into Twitter staffers’ personal and corporate accounts, extracting hundreds of pages of documents about the company. TechCrunch published many of the documents, including sensitive, albeit somewhat dated material, about the company’s prospective business models, relationships with potential partners, and strategies against rivals.
It made for salacious reading (at least for those of us who care about the technology business), even if the details that TechCrunch has published are for the most part not too surprising. For example, it turns out Twitter is still exploring its business model, and isn’t sure how much of a threat companies like Facebook and Google are. The more interesting part to me, that Arrington and Rose get into, is the process by which TechCrunch made the documents public — and how people reacted to them.
From the Rose interview:
CHARLIE ROSE: So, what did you do? You published some internal financial documents from Twitter?
MICHAEL ARRINGTON: There’s this hacker…
CHARLIE ROSE: I know that.
MICHAEL ARRINGTON: This French guy that got these documents from Twitter because of these guest books (ph)…
CHARLIE ROSE: Right, and so what did you do?
MICHAEL ARRINGTON: I’ll get to it. He — so what he did was, he wanted to warn Twitter that, you know, your security is awful. And also he wanted to get credit for doing this as hackers and crackers do. So, he went to the French media, and a French journalist — he was told about it, this French journalist went to Twitter and said what happened, Twitter wouldn’t respond. So he dropped it, came to us and said…
CHARLIE ROSE: Who came to you?
MICHAEL ARRINGTON: This hacker, anonymously, and said, here are all the documents and sent us all these documents. Started this fascinating discussion about…
CHARLIE ROSE: What was in the documents?
MICHAEL ARRINGTON: It was hundreds of documents taken from Twitter’s employees’ attachments to e-mail accounts. And it included interview schedules, people they interviewed in Silicon Valley, prominent people that work in other companies that didn’t end up at Twitter. So very embarrassing stuff. Credit card information for many of the employees. E-mails, inbox screen shots, executive meeting notes, financial projections, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Just the whole sort of thing. And we looked at that and said, we’re going to post some of this. Some of it we’re not. But we said…
CHARLIE ROSE: Like credit card numbers, you’re not going to post that.
MICHAEL ARRINGTON: We’re not going to post the credit card numbers or things that would embarrass people, but some of this was — we thought was pretty darn newsworthy, particularly the financial projections and the executive meeting notes from the last few months. And so we engaged in a dialogue with our readers, where we said, look, we have got these documents. We haven’t decided yet what we’re going to post, we think a couple of documents. We talked to Twitter, sent them all documents, so they knew what was going on. Talked to our lawyer…
CHARLIE ROSE: So, what did they say, go ahead and post them?
MICHAEL ARRINGTON: They said…
CHARLIE ROSE: We have no problem with this?
MICHAEL ARRINGTON: The ultimate answer was, we know you’re going to post a couple of these, and that’s OK, but for most of these, we’d really rather you not, and so that’s not a problem, we absolutely won’t. And we worked with Twitter on the back end to make sure they closed up some of the security holes that they had. But the interesting thing to me wasn’t the — the documents were fascinating. The interesting thing to me was the discussion that was generated around whether we should publish them or not.
And there are people that have come out, major journalists who have come out said it was unethical for us to do this. And there were journalists who had come out and said it was absolutely fine and ethical for them to do this. In fact, their readers deserve that kind of access.
And obviously I have an opinion because I’m in the middle of the story, but just taking myself out of it, I think it’s a fascinating discussion, because I know in the old days, when “The New York Times” or “The Wall Street Journal” got documents like this, they weren’t — they didn’t have that discussion with the readers.
CHARLIE ROSE: It’s interesting how you did it, you know, engaging your community.
MICHAEL ARRINGTON: I engaged them, and I would say that 80 percent of my readers disagreed with me. And let me know about it.
CHARLIE ROSE: So, why did you do it?
MICHAEL ARRINGTON: Because I think — well, you know, it’s funny. When I make decisions with TechCrunch on whether to publish or what position to take, often I’ll look back after everything is played out and say, would I do things differently with the benefit of hindsight? And there are a couple of instances in the past where I would have probably done things differently. In this case, I think I absolutely did the right thing, and I wouldn’t do things any differently. So.
Here’s the video. Note: Arrington also talks about his thoughts on Google’s Chrome operating system, Microsoft’s Bing search engine and some other tech news. But I’m not mentioning any of that in more detail because I’d prefer you read VentureBeat’s coverage of all of those topics.
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