Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Public interest rule of thumb

TechCrunch is having a crisis of conscience over what they'll do with internal Twitter documents they've received.

My rule of thumb is pretty simple. The documents are stolen. Unless the documents reveal wrongdoing greater than stealing, such that the public interest served in publishing is greater than the private harm, then it's unethical to publish. Idle musings about "they are going to be published somewhere on the Internet" is specious; the morality of one's actions don't depend on whether someone else is "doing it", much less everyone.

If TechCrunch goes ahead and publishes these documents, it'll only further cement my already pretty low opinion of Arrington. (I'm not a habitual reader of TechCrunch, or otherwise I'd waste away over all the food I'd be vomiting up.)


Anonymous said...


Unknown said...

Nice... :)

Eamon Nerbonne said...

I'm not a fan of techcrunch - but I think your argument doesn't hold water.

You argue that these documents were stolen, but they certainly weren't stolen in any regular sense of the word - I highly doubt that the documents were removed from twitter, they were simply duplicated.

It's not plagiarism since no misrepresentation of authorship is occuring, and it's (morally) not even like copyright infringement - the original work was never intended for profitable distribution.

Instead, this is about twitter's secrets, or, if you will, privacy. In which way a corporation has a moral right to privacy, I'm not sure, but the larger (and thus more powerful) the corporation, the weaker the argument that this is somehow necessary to protect it from the blunt force of society.

A dose of transparency, even if impolite, is unlikely to do much harm to society, and that's what really matters here. Lack of transparency, on the other hand, is to invite abuse of power or simply disregard for others.

To the degree that a company represents a serious investment in the (efficient) execution of a business - a trade, its secrets should be protected to encourage others to be similarly effective and inventive rather than merely copy each other in the knowledge that innovation isn't worth it - but that's about as far as it goes.

If techcrunch is revealing (relevant) trade secrets without revealing any abuse, they're morally in the wrong. Before that point, they're just impolite bastards...

At least, that's my take ;-).

Eva said...

Eamon, I would disagree with your argument that they are not stolen. The important thing about the documents is the content (The Information), not the actual paper they are written on (or whatever they were written on).

I think they should publish them, though, because at this point my curiosity reached a level that is damn near fatal.

Dave Murray said...

If journalists never published any information that they came across by dodgy means then we'd still not know how much UK politicians were screwing their expenses and would think that Nixon was a great US president! In journalism often the ends does outweigh the means.

Eamon Nerbonne said...

Eva - regardless of what we call it, (stealing or something else) taking a physical object and thereby depriving the original owner of its use is a completely different act than divulging secret information.

The distinction is particularly relevant for a company, because while it's obvious that depriving a company causes direct harm and thus undermines the very point of having such a legal construct, it's not quite as clear to which extent which secrets are required for a company.

If, say, you divulge the passphrase to their servers say, you're clearly doing harm - you've aided anyone that wishes to misappropriate or simply destroy the servers' or their configuration. Most (appropriately random) passphrases have no worth in and of themselves - clearly divulging these is bad.

However, if you divulge plans to dump toxic waste in your backyard, you're still "stealing" information - but this information isn't directly harmful to the company (can not be used to misappropriate their property for instance). Of course, there will be damage to their reputation, as there should be, but it's obvious not the same thing as as stealing your neighbors car.

The fact that commonly both acts are called stealing unfortunately confuses the matter - from a moral perspective, they are completely unrelated.

Various meanings of the word "to steal" do not all necessarily have an identical moral impact. Barry was suggesting that because the information was stolen, it's inherently immoral to divulge it, and that's something I don't agree with - just because we call it stealing doesn't mean it's morally comparable to physical theft in any way.