Stephen Foley: A Murdoch for the Twitter age

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The Independent Online


US Outlook: Introducing Rupert Murdoch 2.0. While the septuagenarian News of the World proprietor has been fighting allegations about the widespread use of celebrity wiretaps by his journalists in the UK, over on this side of the Atlantic, Silicon Valley's most prominent blogger just got a reputation as a bit of a rogue himself.

Michael Arrington's TechCrunch blog is embroiled in a hacking scandal of its own, after publishing secret internal documents that were stolen from Twitter. An anonymous hacker, calling himself Hacker Croll, obtained more than 300 electronic files, ranging from Twitter's financial projections and information about negotiations with Facebook and Google, to personal staff details and the names of every senior Valley executive who has asked to work there.

Scintillating stuff, by all accounts, and an embarrassment to Twitter just as it appears to be completing its journey from internet curio to full-blown media powerhouse. If Twitter's employees can't keep their own passwords safe from hacking, can it really be trusted with its users' information?

These issues seem to be exercising the Twitterati less, however, than the question of journalistic ethics – always an earnestly debated topic in the US. TechCrunch has published only a fraction of the documents that landed in its lap, but many readers are up in arms, saying it has crossed a line by using material known to have been obtained illegally.

It's grey, not black and white. So grey, that TechCrunch staff debated for eight hours what to do. Mr Arrington says that journalists have always used leaked information, and he quotes Britain's own Lord Northcliffe in his defence: "News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising."

My gut says that Mr Arrington's justification doesn't cut it. Leaking and hacking are not exactly the same thing; people and corporations do have an expectation of privacy; journalists have to justify using material obtained through subterfuge. We've even got it written down in Britain in the Press Complaints Commission code of conduct. Unless journalists rule out the routine use of deceitfully obtained information, a whole industry will spring up pursuing it for us – as the intertwined wiretapping convictions of Clive Goodman of the News of the World and private detective Glenn Mulcaire demonstrate.

The truly bizarre thing is that Mr Arrington went in for a penny, but not for a pound. He is self-righteously withholding the juicy details about Twitter's partnership discussions with Google and Microsoft, which he says are "too sensitive".

What we learnt instead is that, at least back in February, Twitter was expecting to bring in its first revenue around now, in the third quarter of 2009. It also has ambitions to be the first social network business with a billion users ("1st to a Billion = Awesome") but fears Google or Facebook could crush them. Sweet, unsurprising stuff, but hardly of vital public interest.

I can't get as exercised as some, however, and I think we are all going to have to take a pragmatic approach to these issues in the new media era. Even the British PCC says it will consider the extent to which any information might be about to get into the public domain – and the hacker could at any moment post the material himself on the internet somewhere. Mr Arrington may well have found himself writing the same stories in a few days' time anyway. On that "sensitive" information he is withholding, he still might.

I will confess to being actually rather chuffed that Hacker Croll decided to email TechCrunch with his stolen goodies, rather than plant them on an obscure webpage, to be found and spread virally. Journalists have not been disintermediated entirely. It has been a coming-of-age month for several West Coast blogs. TMZ.com proved it was a reliable media player, breaking news of Michael Jackson's death. Now four-year-old TechCrunch cements its position as a go-to source for news and gossip about the tech industry. Mr Arrington really might grow up to be Rupert Murdoch.

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