A few days ago a French Hacker calling himself Croll began releasing documents containing private financial data and personal information on employees he had stolen from Twitter’s servers. To give an idea of how sensitive some of that data was, one document was the minutes from the meeting between Google and Twitter back in March. I can’t imagine that either Google or Twitter would want that posted on the Web.
To date TechCrunch is the only high-profile website that has decided to publish some of that information. Because they rank #2 on the Top 100 Blogs (Technorati), this is news indeed. We can understand why small-fry websites that feel the need to make a name for themselves might resort to what many regard as unethical activity, but why TechCrunch?
Could it be that Michael Arrington has made a serious misjudgment? His action indicates that he assumes his public is after sensationalism or ‘news’ even more than they want the security of a web where leaders accept responsibility for ‘setting the tone,’ as I mentioned in my first article about TechCrunch publishing hacked documents from Twitter’s servers.
The Legal Defense For Publishing Stolen Data?
To start with, it is salient to point out that Michael Arrington, TechCrunch’s high-profile cofounder is a graduate of Stanford Law School. So it’s a fair assumption that he has already checked out his legal stance and is fairly confident that he won’t be paying a price there. French Lawyer Clarinette who specializes in the use and misuse of the Internet, communicated to me via Twitter one short sentence, that I took to mean she assumes he’s relyng the Fruit of the Poison Tree Doctrine, where stolen information is inadmissible as evidence in court.
Clarinette also sent me this article showing how TechCrunch could be protected by the First Amendment, and she has set out some of her thoughts on the matter on her own blog.
A big thanks to Steve Plunkett who sent me this article on California law as it pertains to stolen property. According to this, Arrington could actually go to jail for using that stolen data.
OK, that’s the law: what about ethics?
But what about the innocent? What about privacy rights? Is it ‘right’ that those seeking fame, fortune and domination should be allowed to profit by exploiting security lapses at the expense of others? It remains to be seen how well the legal system does in fact defend the innocent here. At the very least we should all make it very clear that we won’t give our votes to websites who abuse privacy.
But I firmly believe Arrington misjudged the social implications, and certainly the reactions of his readers when he decided to publish those documents.
Here are just a few of the responses i’ve seen on Twitter yesterday and today:
And the Internet is abuzz with commentary that overwhelmingly condemns TechCrunch’s actions. SEOmoz points out that it’s not a first for TechCrunch to be lurking in murky water. For instance, they published over 550 blogposts ranking for ‘porn’ in the last year alone.
The UK’s Guardian Newspaper has a great appraisal of what exactly happened with TechCrunch, and where they stand.
Econsultancy decided to take a look at it from a different point of view and is speculating that, from the data contained in the stolen documents, it could mean that Twitter is losing its edge. I suppose that’s the kind of commentary we can expect from a website that is happy to capitalize on someone else’s unethical behavior.
From his actions, you might be forgiven for thinking that Michael Arrington is pretty thick-skinned but is he as insensitive about himself as he for others? It seems not: where his own personal privacy is concerned, even he says that some things need to change.
What TechCrunch Can Expect
I think the fallout from TechCrunch’s error of judgement in publishing a hacker’s stolen data won’t be felt all at once. I think it will trickle in. We’ll see a lot more comments like that by Lisa Barone (above) until the notion that TechCrunch is untrustworthy sinks into the public consciousness, and they will gradually find themselves slipping from that coveted and hard-won #2 position. I feel that ultimately this incident will serve to make the Internet a better place as we all decide where we stand, and as other influential websites learn that they cannot tread on our sensibilities with impunity without some kind of fallout.
Patricia Skinner is an SEO consultant, social media coach & reputation management expert. She is also community leader at the nascent SEO Self Regulation Community. She can be reached any time through her SEO website. Why not follow her on Twitter & her LinkedIn profile.