This post from TechCrunch crossed my attention inbox today, and I find myself quite flummoxed on the subject of how I think I should react.
Assume you have managed, through no overt work on your part (meaning, you didn't explicitly solicit, ask, or otherwise endeavor to obtain), to get ownership of "hundreds of confidential corporate and personal documents" for a company. Assume further that these documents are genuine—there is little to no chance that they could have been forged or fabricated. The documents span a range of sensitivity, from documents that are "somewhat embarrassing to various individuals, but not otherwise interesting", to documents that "show floorplans and security passcodes to get into the Twitter offices", to documents "showing financial projections, product plans and notes from executive strategy meetings". In other words, documents that yes, could create a certain amount of havoc to the corporate entity in question, could embarrass individuals within (and not within) that company, and documents that could lead to a competitive advantage for the entity's competitors.
Now also assume, for the purpose of the discussion, that you are an entity whose business model or raison d'etre is to publish—you are a blogger, a "social networking maven", a media outlet, whatever.
Is it unethical to publish these documents? Is it simply trolling for hits? Is there a "journalistic responsibility" to publish this material?
The people from TechCrunch feel like they have a right/responsibility to publish at least some of the documents, and are unswayed by the arguments in the blog's comments about the morality of such a move, including such comments as "This is an a**hole move" and "there's still an appearance of lapse of ethics here" (and that's just within the first half-dozen comments or so". What is particularly interesting is the response from (someone I assume to be) one of the blog's owners:
lol. if we only posted things that companies gave us permission to post this would be a press release site and none of you would be here. News is stuff someone doesn’t want you to write. The rest is advertising.
This comment disturbs me on several levels—it's only news if it's "stuff someone doesn't want you to write"? That's a pretty shallow and narrowly-defined sense of the term, if you ask me, and it puts periodicals like National Enquirer and Star magazines on the same level as the New York Times and CNN. (Although, and I'll freely admit this, having just come through the Michael Jackson media blitz, sometimes it feels difficult to tell the difference between all four of those.)
At the same time, though, it's clear from our own history that journalism has served the public good by shining a bright light into shady corners that some powers-that-be would prefer left unexposed. The abuses described by Upton Sinclair in the turn-of-the-century factories, the rampant sexual harassment in the military exposed by the Tailhook scandal, and certainly the outright blatantly violent suppression of Civil Rights movement of the 60's in the South were all shining examples of journalism at its finest, showing off dark and ugly parts of the world and—either implicitly or explicitly—demanding society to acknowledge it and either openly accept it or strive to change it (with all three of my examples seeing society choosing the latter).
What is "journalistic responsibility" here?
In our chosen field—that of computer science and software—there is clearly a responsibility for those "in the know" to reveal scenarios where information is being purloined or made available that violates individuals' rights to privacy. It's one thing if I trade my personal sales habits to a grocery store chain in exchange for a percentage off the final sale. That's a choice I'm making, consciously and knowingly. (By this point, if you haven't figured that out, you're just deliberately hiding from the fact.) But for somebody else to disclose my purchasing history without my consent to another party, that's brushing a very ugly moral dark area. And if a company is choosing to take its customers' personal data and make it available for anyone else to use as they see fit—for whatever purpose that third party can imagine—then cheers and kudos to the whistle-blower who brings media attention on that behavior.
But Twitter doesn't have much of my personal data, and they certainly didn't give it away to anybody—it was stolen from them, according to what I've read so far. What's more, I don't really have that much personal data stored with them—certainly no credit cards, birthdates, financial or medical information, or even family notes. What's there is actually pretty tame, as a Twitter customer.
(Twitter employees are a totally different matter. Admittedly. But let's just stick with the Twitter customer data for now.)
So where is the "journalistic responsibility" in publishing this material?
And are bloggers journalists? Should they be held to the same standards as journalists? And if not, then with all these formerly print-only media moving to the Internet and putting more and more of their material online, where do we draw that line? What's the difference between Fareed Zakaria writing a column on Middle East affairs for Newsweek.com on a monthly basis and Joe Sixpack posting a monthly rant on the illegal and illicit activities of his hometown rival's sports team? Is it just the domain name? And if Joe Sixpack decides to say, point blank, "TechCrunch paid for that material, they hired the guy who broke into the Twitter offices and stole it" on his blog, what avenues does TechCrunch have to decry and/or reverse that trend?
For the record, I oppose what TechCrunch is doing except if there is some blatantly legal violation of consumers' privacy. Frankly, if the hacker had approached me with those documents, I'd be working with the FBI to see the guy tossed in jail, because folks, if he did it to them, he could just as easily do it to you.
But this still leaves the deeper question about where bloggers sit in the journalistic continuum, and I admit, I have a lot of mixed feelings on the subject.