Will Twitter Sue TechCrunch?

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Will Twitter take legal action against Web sites that publish the company's confidential documents, which were leaked by a hacker? Although the microblog isn't coming right out and saying it, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams published a blog post yesterday suggesting legal action was a possibility.

In a post entitled, "Twitter, Even More Open Than We Wanted," Williams said: "We are in touch with our legal counsel about what this theft means for Twitter...and anyone who accepts and subsequently shares or publishes these stolen documents. We're not sure yet exactly what the implications are for folks who choose to get involved at this point but when we learn more and are able to share more, we will."

Williams also pointed out that while the publication of these documents could be embarrassing for the company, they aren't particularly revelatory about Twitter's future plans. But Williams also wrote that publishing the purloined documents could "jeopardize relationships with Twitter's ongoing and potential partners."

The confidential documents Williams refers to were obtained by a French hacker named Hacker Croll. The hacker reportedly obtained the data by gaining unauthorized access to a Twitter employee's personal e-mail account, and then using information in the e-mail account to access company documents stored on the Google Apps service. Williams said Twitter does not fault Google's security for the break-in, and will continue to use Google Apps.

Twitter Frenzy

While many news outlets and blogs are publishing accounts of the ongoing document theft, TechCrunch is the only high-traffic blog that has, to my knowledge, received the confidential documents and made the decision to publish them. If Twitter does decide to take legal action for publishing the documents, it seems likely TechCrunch could be a target of those proceedings.

TechCrunch has come under criticism for its decision to publish some of these documents, which the blog considers to be of significant news value. TechCrunch co-founder Michael Arrington said the blog disagrees with the notion the information was "stolen" and therefore should not be published. He argued that his site posts confidential information "almost every day" that has been "leaked by an employee or someone else close to the company," so why should Twitter's confidential information be any different?

Lawyers, Lawyers , and More Lawyers

It's not surprising that Twitter would want to vigorously protect its intellectual property and other confidential information by considering legal action. But what is strange is a statement by TechCrunch that the blog has been working with Twitter lawyers to negotiate publication of these documents. I have no idea what those discussions might entail, but it's hard to imagine Twitter's legal counsel giving the green light to the publication of any documents in light of Williams' blog post. However, the negotiations may be working, since TechCrunch has so far published just two pieces of information: pitch documents for a reality TV show called Final Tweet, and a redacted version of a document detailing Twitter's financial projections.

Where's the beef?

Instead of an avalanche of information, very little has been revealed from the supposedly 310 documents TechCrunch has in its possession. Blogger Robert Scoble on FriendFeed posted a discussion thread with the idea that TechCrunch could be taking a cautious approach to publication in order to avoid damaging its relationship with Twitter and sources close to the company.

The benefit Scoble discusses is the amount of Web traffic TechCrunch has received from being on Twitter's suggested user list -- the SUL is a list of 100 follow-worthy accounts Twitter recommends to users new to the service. "TechCrunch is on Twitter's Suggested User List," Scoble wrote. "They have been gifted about 880,000 followers by being on that list, AKA "SUL". That's worth a lot of money."

The problem with Scoble's idea is that it flies in the face of the basic journalistic ethic not to let the influence of advertising -- paid or otherwise -- sway your news coverage. In addition to TechCrunch, Twitter's SUL includes personalities and news feeds from major media organizations including ABC, BBC, CBS, CNN, NPR, The New York Times, and Time magazine. The TechCrunch Twitter feed has close to 1 million followers, and as of this writing is still on Twitter's SUL.

With the ongoing controversy over what has been unfortunately dubbed '#Twittergate' (was there ever any doubt this would happen?), Google has published a blog post about security measures it takes to secure your Google account.

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