Path, privacy and tech journalism: let’s not lose the real stories in the noise

Late last night I stumbled across a freshly written post critical of the cynicism of and personal attacks that are a standard facet of the tech industry. Written by Michael Arrington, it implores the industry to be better than the current level of discourse being exemplified by Dan Lyons and MG Siegler.

Now, nothing is less interesting to outsiders than industry navel-gazing, but Arrington has a point. The omnipresent noise of the tech echo chamber is overshadowing some very important stories related to Path that should be investigated and addressed for the health of the industry. As a comment to Arrington’s post, I highlighted what I thought were the important stories that aren’t getting the attention they deserve. I’ve expanded upon those comments below, but before you read them, you catch up on the below posts (don’t worry, I’ll wait):

Disruptions: So Many Apologies, So Much Data Mining
Content Everywhere, But Not A Drop To Drink
Hit men, click whores, and paid apologists: Welcome to the Silicon Cesspool
Paris Lemon and the No Good, Very Bad Day

  1. In his New York Times piece, Nick Bilton makes a great point that there are serious ramifications to the ubiquity with which mobile apps/startups are playing with personal privacy, data and transparency. Ramifications that extend beyond the average consumer recognizing that they are conceding the monetization or their personal data in exchange for ‘free’ services. Path and apps like it may not be trying to ‘kill Egyptian dissidents’, as Arrington put it, but in an information age, personal data and privacy are important and should be protected.
  2. Michael Arrington has repeatedly made a great point that people need to pay more attention to Apple and the inconsistencies to their API access – for example, why they force users for permission to LBS data but not personal contact data. That being said, ‘everybody’s doing it’ or ‘everybody can do it’ isn’t a justifiable excuse for any tech company. Also, posts have been written showing that Path’s methodology for grabbing the contact information was “unnecessary and even lazy” despite its intentions to provide a better service for its users. Hipster, which also got its hand caught in the contact information cookie jar, has called for a privacy summit, and our very own Jeff Bacon will be publishing a post tomorrow outlining a minimum viable product checklist for data privacy.
  3. Whatever Dave Lyons personal issues with MG Siegler, and despite the nasty attacks he made, his post raises some valid concerns about the intersection of tech startups and the people that cover them. The CrunchFund/Pando Daily model is new territory for the industry, and the (now formal) relationships between the people that build the apps, the people that fund the apps, and the people that cover both requires objective and prolonged investigation for the health of the industry. I’m not saying Arrington or anyone else has anything but the best of intentions, but they also should know better than to expect us to take them purely at their word. This need for transparency and good journalism is underscored when, after an impassioned plea for us all to be better, Arrington uses his pulpit a day later to publish a post with the intent of reducing the focus on Path (which CrunchFund is an investor in) by indicting Foursquare (which CrunchFund is not an investor, but would like to be) for doing the same thing (they’re not, by the way, and have been fairly open with how they handle personal information). Sometimes the best of intentions can be confused by a lack of perspective and/or distance.

These are the important stories that UNTETHER will try to focus on and push forward with good copy and video. For the benefit of our readers, we’ll try to ignore the rest.

About the author

Douglas Soltys

Douglas is the former Editor-In-Chief of Inside BlackBerry, BlackBerry Cool, and QuicklyBored, which he launched as a mobile gaming industry site. His knowledge of mobile and social media led him to a job at RIM (BlackBerry), where he got to travel the world and do lots of cool things. He is often left-handed, but rarely sinister.

  • I don’t understand what you mean by “The CrunchFund/Pando Daily model is new territory for the industry.” That a blog raised venture funding? Look at GigaOm, VentureBeat, Alley Insider and others. 

    And what in the world is wrong with me writing things that I think about companies that I invest in? I’ve disclosed it, there’s certainly lots of precedent (Fred Wilson and others), and it’s good for the industry. To have lots of points of view. Why is it fine for Om to be a VC and a blogger, it’s ok for Fred Wilson to be a VC and a blogger, but it’s not ok for me to be a VC and a blogger?

    Think about all of this. Really think. There’s something else going on here besides what you’ve written.

  • I always find it bemusing that people are so concerned that the chance that someone could be biased is confused with someone actually being biased. Anyone that takes a single source for information about a company — regardless as to if the person has a personal stake or interest in the company — is an idiot.

    There are a lot of stories written by people (myself included) who really only wrote the story because they were able to come up with some interesting information due to personal connections with a company. That doesn’t make the stories less interesting, less important or mean that the author is specifically writing it to prop up a company they are connected to.

    I wish more people who were VCs would write about the companies they are invested in as at least that would provide more points of view to consider and hopefully some interesting insight.

  • Hi @arrington:disqus / @arrington:twitter ,
    Thanks for taking the time to post a comment.I may be wrong here, but I do believe there is a difference between blogs that raise venture funding and a blog dedicated to startups specifically seeking funding from those startups that it seeks to cover. I’m not saying this is wrong, or shouldn’t be done, but it does add new twist – one that should be observed.

    I also don’t think there’s anything wrong with you writing about the companies you invest in. As I mentioned above and in my comment on your post, you’ve raised many valid points, and I do believe it provides a benefit. But I also believe that your proximity also (naturally) alters your perspective. For example, I don’t think you would have written what you did about Foursquare if you weren’t an investor in Path; your proximity to the company is prompting you to spend more time focused on Path than the other issues (for example, really going after Apple on why they allow this to happen in the first place). Again, this isn’t bad, but it should be taken into account.

    Finally, I definitely think there’s an added layer of personal attack here that does go deeper. There are people that don’t want you doing what you’re doing, for whatever reason. But honestly, while of particular importance to you and the CrunchFund, I feel it’s less important to the industry as a whole than the stories I mentioned above, which is why I focused on them. It’s my way of ‘being better’ and raising the level of discourse.

    Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  • “I do believe there is a difference between blogs that raise venture funding and a blog dedicated to startups specifically seeking funding from those startups that it seeks to cover.” I do not understand what you’re saying. Pando Daily, which was dragged into this mess for no reason at all, raised money from a number of venture capitalists, but no “startups that it seeks to cover.” It is exactly the same situation as the blogs I mentioned in my first comment.

    WRT the rest of your comment, imagine this. Imagine a world that has far more complex relationships than you assume. A world where I have a history of defending people and startups that I have no financial interest in (I linked to many of those stories in one of my uncrunched posts). A world where I began the conversation by criticizing a portfolio company and said they should delete the data. Then took issue with press attacking just them, and argued my case. All with full disclosure. Imagine we’re very interested in investing in foursquare and exactly the wrong thing to do there is to mention that they’ve done this far longer than Path, but I do it anyway. Again with disclosure (I even said we want to be investors). Or imagine that many of our limited partners are shareholders in foursquare, and pissing them off does far more damage to us financially than pissing Path off.

    In fact, not a single word I’ve written in the last several days has helped me financially either directly or indirectly. And it has certainly caused harm.

    At the end of the day it doesn’t really matter what my motivations are. I have agreed to disclose my conflicts, and I always do. Even the potential conflicts. No blogger or journalist I know of goes to the lengths I do to disclose. And still I must spend ten minutes defending myself to a very reasonable person who does not know me at all and yet feels quite comfortable saying that there are “issues” that need to be addressed. Instead of saying wow, it’s kind of cool that we can get these different opinions.

    There are no issues that need to be addressed. I believe that I not only have the right to say what I want to say, but I also believe I have shown over a course of years that conflicts of interest have very little bearing on my opinions. Most of the people who say otherwise are competitors who I’ve destroyed by working harder than them. And I believe that whether you and others believe it or not, it’s far better for conflicted people to have their say, with disclosure, than not to.

    Anyhow, thank you for hosting an actual conversation about this. I believe that even reasonable posts like yours have a massive chilling effect on the community, but perhaps I’m wrong. I believe that Dan Lyons was doing nothing more than settling a personal score and never disclosed that (see update to my post), but perhaps I’m wrong. I believe that when people like Lyons twist the truth and engage in personal attacks that he should be shunned, not celebrated. I believe that the only wrong done over the last few days are by the people who insist that Path is somehow the only party to blame despite the fact that many, many startups do this. And I believe that it’s atrocious that Apple is willing to hand out my contact data to anyone that asks and they have seen almost no press criticism for it.

    And before you ask, no I don’t own Apple stock. But writing things like that last sentence in the paragraph above isn’t in my best interest. Since they will probably buy some of the companies in our portfolio.

  • Hi @arrington:disqus ,

    I understand your frustration. I definitely believe you’re free to write what you want to write, and I agree it adds a ton of insight. I also agree that you have a really good track record of disclosure. Please don’t ever stop blogging.

    But I think you have to remember that the motives and decisions of people in positions of power and influence will always be the subject of interest, investigation and debate. It’s the case for politicians, CEOs and public figures (like you) – it’s why people write books on Steve Jobs. Just because you have a long history of disclosure and keeping it real doesn’t mean you receive a lifetime exemption from future investigation or consideration. You have written that blogging is process journalism; the process never ends. 

    The important part is making sure it’s done in a way that provides value, without the personal attacks or general douchery that’s so prevalent on the net. No one should have to suffer the kind of things Dan Lyons said.

    In the end, I think the only real solution is for CrunchFund to invest in UNTETHER. We’re like a Pando Daily for mobile with a splash of TechCrunchTV! =D

    Thanks for the conversation.

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