Yesterday, one of the world’s most influential journalists decided to publish confidential leaked financial, strategic and planning documents from one of the world’s hottest multi-million dollar companies.
I won’t tease this out any longer for some bad CSI-style twist ending — the journalist is the founder and writer of Silicon Valley blog TechCrunch Michael Arrington — named by TIME last year as one of the 100 most influential people in the world — and the company is Twitter, the folks behind this year’s breakthrough social media tool, said to be valued for at least $250-million.
(Admittedly, that’s only on paper, but they’ve scored a good $20 million in venture capital so far and rejected a $500 million buy-out offer from Facebook last year, so we’re still talking big business, with lots of investors, stakeholders and money at risk.)
Regardless, my point — and the logic behind employing that cunning bait-and-switch narrative device in the intro there — is not to dismiss this as just another pointless story about Twitter and flick past to the cartoon dogs.
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This is far more a story about business and media ethics than it is about an inane internet fads or more “new media” drivel.
The story starts about a month ago, when a hacker going by the pseudonym “Hacker Croll” got into the email accounts of several Twitter employees, including that of company co-founder Evan Williams and director of product management Jason Goldman, (simply by guessing their passwords, no less. Let that be a lesson to those of you still using “password” or “admin”). Croll then took control of the Twitter accounts of celebrities like Britney Spears and Ashton Kutcher, and it was all very amusing really… until Tuesday this week, when Croll revealed just how much information he or she (let’s not be presumptuous) had been able to access via the breach: Paypal, Amazon, Apple , AT&T, MobileMe and Gmail accounts, which then gave them access to hundreds of pages of internal company documents.
Croll then sent all the documents to Arrington, who promptly let the world know what he’d received — and that he’d be publishing it.
The vast majority of [the documents] are somewhat embarrassing to various individuals, but not otherwise interesting … We’re not going to post any of those documents.
But we are going to release some of the documents showing financial projections, product plans and notes from executive strategy meetings …
There is clearly an ethical line here that we don’t want to cross, and the vast majority of these documents aren’t going to be published, at least by us. But a few of the documents have so much news value that we think it’s appropriate to publish them.
And he has.
Kicking things off was a pitch from a TV production company for a Twitter reality show called Final Tweet (which looks, frankly, horrible), which he admitted was a “softball”, before kicking things up a notch with the company’s financial forecasts for the next four years, which show they are targeting 1 billion users, $1.54 billion in revenue, 5200 employees and $1.1 billion in net earnings by 2013. Arrington says their next post will reveal just how Twitter — who have struggled to hit on a viable revenue stream despite their phenomenal popularity — plans to make that much money.
Twitter co-founder Biz Stone has responded on their official blog, putting up a casual front by saying the document will hardly reveal “some big, secret plan for taking over the world” and “no one’s really going to be surprised about what’s in there”, though Arrington has stated that they are having “negotiations” with Twitter’s lawyers.
But legal issues aside (and they exist — as The Guardian notes, California, where both sites are based, has a trade secrets law), Arrington’s actions obviously raise some greater issues over the media’s rights and responsibilities when dealing with private information. He has defended his actions, saying it’s no different to the Wall Street Journal publishing this internal Yahoo memo, or Gawker publishing Sarah Palin’s personal emails:
… 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.
As we move increasingly into an interconnected, digital age — and the business world inevitably lags behind the technology — these sorts of leaks and information breaches will almost assuredly become more and more common.
The question for the media is how what we do with this information when it falls into our hands, while businesses must grapple with just how much responsibility they take for such breaches when they do incredibly stupid things like protect their entire server system with the password “password”.