Twitter in the news

I’ve just read the TechCrunch Twitter article (thank you, Eikke). It’s disgusting. I’ve doubted on whether I should actually blog about this, as this kind of gives TechCrunch what they wanted: more attention, but then again, it’s not that the select group of readers of this article will make a difference 🙂

I’ve been working in tech startups for a bit over 10 years now. I don’t want to claim I know the industry inside out, but I kind of know how it works. I also know how marketing and PR work – after all that’s my job – so I know how the two interact. The industry needs the magazines and the magazines need the industry. Symbiosis? Probably – but in some cases more like two parasites living off each other. Does that exist?

More than once I’ve been disgusted by the way how press works. No pay, no fame. An example of how poor press can be is how one of Belgium’s most famous IT journalists consistently refuses to write about anything that comes out of this Incubation Center because he doesn’t really like the founder or so: How can one possibly write an article about what Oracle will do with Sun’s cloud strategy without mentioning that a big chunk of Sun’s cloud technology is the Belgian Q-layer?

But I’m going off topic. I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of TechCrunch and their now famous journalist. So you get this e-mail that contains the most sensitive information about the industry’s hottest company. That information has obviously been obtained illegally. What do you do? Obviously they chose to publish. They chose to go the Daily Mirror or The Sun way (the magazine 🙂 ) and be the tabloid of the Industry. After all, tabloids get readers and the more readers you get, the more money you get to ask for advertising. I assume – I hope – they at least had a meeting before publishing the data. Let’s try to reconstruct:

“Hey boss, look at what I got in my inbox”

“Wow, have you informed the authorities? that’s illegal”

“No boss, we should publish this”

“Uhm, that could put us in a lot of trouble – let’s have a meeting”

“blahblah”

“Ok, let’s see what the pro’s and cons are”

“We’ll get many hits. I’ll get famous”

“It’s not ethical”

“Readers means money for the company”

“We could destroy Twitter – we don’t want to do that do we?”

“Money for the company  means bonusses for us”

“Ok, let’s talk to our lawyers and publish”

Ok, this may not actually be what happened since, they made an online hype of it first (very smart). So let’s have a look at TechCrunch’s arguments and see if I – on my own – can counter the arguments of what probably comes from the full staff and lawyers team of TechCrunch:

_____________

Wow, that’s quite a reaction to our post earlier this evening saying that we will publish some of the confidential Twitter documents we’ve been forwarded. Nearly 200 comments in a little over an hour, mostly saying we shouldn’t publish. Hundreds of Tweets, and it has become a trending topic. There’s even a poll asking people if we should post the documents or not.

*** I have to admit: Very smart to use the other party’s own weapons. Very smart to start a hype …

Let’s put aside the highly sensitive documents that we aren’t going to publish, but which will likely end up on the Internet anyway.

*** So if I see an unlocked car, I can take out the fancy radio because someone else probably will?
*** And this has absolutely nothing to do with the fact that the highly sensitive information involves companies with much more money to pay lawyers than Twitter?
*** How do you distinguish sensitive from highly sensitive?

We’re not going to post that information whether we have the legal right to or not. No discussion is needed.
But we are going to publish some of the other information that is relevant to Twitter’s business, particularly product notes and financial projections. Many users say this is “stolen” information and therefore shouldn’t be published. We disagree.
We publish confidential information almost every day on TechCrunch. This is stuff that is also “stolen,” usually leaked by an employee or someone else close to the company, and the company is very much opposed to its publication. In the past we’ve received comments that this is unethical. And it certainly was unethical, or at least illegal or tortious, for the person who gave us the information and violated confidentiality and/or nondisclosure agreements. But on our end, it’s simply news.

*** Freedom of speech is undoubtedly one of the most important rights people in democracies have. But so is privacy, both for individuals and companies. Magazines who insist to walking this thin line are (1) endangering the freedom of speech right (as each time freedom of speech is to be discussed, we risk losing some of it) and (2) causing a lot of damage. Not only to their direct victims, but also to those people and companies who suffer additional fear of seeing things published about them against their will.

If you disagree with that, ok. But then you also have to disagree with the entire history of the news industry. “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising,” is something Lord Northcliffe, a newspaper magnate, supposedly said. I agree wholeheartedly.

*** So hereby TechCrunch vows to never let their articles be influences by how much advertising money they get form companies. They will never be so arrogant to ignore press releases from small startups who will for sure never be able to pay them advertising money? Also, with this statement, TechCrunch confirms that 80% of what they publish is just advertising (’cause I’ve seen many many “regular” articles on TechCrunch)?

That doesn’t mean we are entitled to do anything we like in order to get to that information. But if it lands in our inbox, we consider it fair game. And if we have reason to believe it will be widely published regardless of what we do, the decision isn’t a hard one. We throw out the information that is sensitive or could hurt an individual, and publish what we think is newsworthy.

*** Well, TechCrunch did a lousy job on deciding what could hurt Twitter and what could not. Actually the only ones who could decided on that are Twitter. Obviously they have not been consulted, ’cause from the parts I read (I admit, I did not read all of it), Twitter is toast now.

In the end, this is no different than, as an example, this 2006 post where we posted confidential Yahoo documents showing their valuation of Facebook in a proposed acquisition.

*** Good I didn’t read that one. (Eikke, why did you never send me that link?)

Nor is it any different than the WSJ publishing this internal Yahoo memo, which was also “stolen” in 2006.
And I believe it is significantly less of an ethical issue than Gawker’s posting of Sarah Palin’s private emails.
It’s not our fault that Google has a ridiculously easy way to get access to accounts via their password recovery question. It’s not our fault that Twitter stored all of these documents and sensitive information in the cloud and had easy-to-guess passwords and recovery questions.

*** Again, it’s not my fault car windows break that easily, so breaking into cars should be legalized …

We’ve been sitting in the office for eight hours now debating what the right thing to do is in this situation. We’ve spoken with our lawyers. We’ve spoken with Twitter. And we’ve heard what our readers have to say. All of that factors in to our decision on what to post or not to post.
We are always in the delicate position of balancing what’s right for the community with publishing insider news that helped build this site into what it is today. We don’t sit around and republish press releases, we break big stories.
I feel bad for Twitter and I wish this had never happened. But it did happen and the documents are out there and they are going to be published somewhere on the Internet. Hopefully the embarrassing and sensitive stuff about individual employees will never see the light of day. And hopefully this situation will encourage Google and Google users to consider more robust data security policies in the future.

*** Very touching!

_____________

Maybe TechCrunch should have looked at it this way: we’re in the worst economy ever (I’m starting to believe the dotcom crisis was nothing compared). Twitter happens to be one of the success stories people needed to hang in there. Like a young girl being rescued 10 days after the earthquake. This event may or may not destroy Twitter. Twitter may still be successful, be acquired for a lot of money etc. But it will be a lot less a success than it could have been. And the worst is that TechCrunch did not just reduce the chances to success of Twitter, it put a bad light on the single most important thing that gives entrepreneurs hope and courage to move on in spite of the recession. An it’s only thanks to those entrepreneurs that we will get out of the recession. Thanks a lot TechCrunch, so now, how do I remove you from my rss feed?

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~ by tomleyden on July 17, 2009.

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