Causation is Hard

Link by Link - Delaying News in the Era of the Internet -

“Looking at the detailed records of editing changes recorded by Wikipedia, it quickly emerged that the changes came from Internet Broadcasting Services, a company in St. Paul, Minn., that provides Web services to a variety of companies, including local NBC TV stations.

An I.B.S. spokeswoman said on Friday that ‘a junior-level employee made updates to the Wikipedia page upon learning of Mr. Russert’s passing, thinking it was public record.’ She added that the company had ‘taken the necessary measures with the employee and apologized to NBC.’ NBC News said it was told the employee was fired.”

Securities fraudster Henry Blodget adds:


If the employee learned the news because NBC was officially distributing it to affiliates under embargo, that’s one thing (the firing would be appropriate). If the employee heard about it unofficially, however, from friends at NBC or I.B.S., then the firing was outrageous. …

The world has changed in last 15 years, and the genie isn’t going back in the bottle. If NBC wants to maintain its tradition with respect to staffers’ deaths, that’s fine. In the meantime, it should recognize that its chances of controlling a story this big are—and should be—infinitesimal and that “citizen journalism” has long since gone mainstream. If the employee at IBS who updated the Wikipedia entry did not learn of it via a confidential NBC communication, moreover, NBC and IBS owe him or her an apology and a job.

This is where the old me and the new me part ways. The old me—the irascible programmer—would say that Blodget’s rule is right. They can fire you if you break a confidence; they can’t fire you if you don’t. The new me—the irascible lawyer—would say that even if that rule is the ideal one, we may never know whether the I.B.S. employee acted on confidential or publicly-known information may be extremely hard. Blodget says “If the employee … did not learn of it via a confidential NBC communication,” as though we could simply flip open the Book of Facts and get a yes-no answer. What if the employee learned of it through office gossip from a coworker who read a confidential dispatch from NBC? What if the employee read a confidential dispatch, and then heard about the news on Twitter? What if the employee says the information came from Bob, and Bob doesn’t remember where he heard? What if there are no clear further facts at all, and no one can reconstruct the chain? The old me would have been willing to chase these hypoes out a lot further. The new me says at some point we throw up our hands.

Or rather, “at some point we throw” the unanswerable questions to a jury, and call their verdict the truth.

Frankly, the poor employee’s firing is probably attributable more to I.B.S. trying to appease an angry client than to any principle about maintaining confidential information. People get fired due to unreasonable or idiosyncratic clients all the time.

I actually think that the fact of death — especially of a famous person — is automatically a matter of public record. Norms of courtesy or human respect might suggest that information about somebody’s death be disseminated in a particular order, but “confidentiality” really seems to be an inappropriate word to use here.

What if the employee was supposed to be doing work instead of updating Wikipedia entries?