Think Secret, considered by many in the computer industry as a major source of information on Apple Computer products, is being sued. Unlike traditional scandals, like CBS’s use of fake documents to implicate George W. Bush of failing to serve his time in the National Guard, Think Secret is guilty of something far more legally heinous: getting the scoop on the release of products from Apple Computers like the Mac Mini.
The American right to a free press is currently under attack. With the expansion of digital forms of press such as blogs and podcasting, these new modes of reporting are slipping through the cracks of defined laws for traditional forms of media. The result is the exploitation of these loopholes by companies like Apple Computer to serve their own purposes.
In Think Secret’s case, the information on the upcoming Apple releases came from within the company. Apple decided that the publication of these ‘trade secrets’ could only come about with employees breaking their nondisclosure agreements.
The lawsuit argues that Think Secret does not qualify as a legitimate member of the press and therefore does not qualify for the protections afforded by the Constitution or the California Shield Law that protect journalists from having to reveal the names of their unidentified sources.
So the question becomes: If the 19-year-old college student blogger can be sued by Apple for not being a ‘journalist,’ what makes one a legitimate writer in the eyes of the law? I’m a 20-year-old college student who writes for a school newspaper. My official writings for this publication are protected by law. But what of my blog? Does being a legitimate journalist in one arena qualify me for protection in another?
Bloggers are not subject to the same high standards that much of the printed press aspires to.
They have no access to fact checkers or editors, and their readers know that their contents more often than not contain opinion even when reporting.
For the average blogger who isn’t also a writer for a newspaper, Judge James Kleinberg from the Santa Clara County Superior Court found in a preliminary ruling that the shield protecting journalists from being legally compelled to reveal their sources does not apply to Web sites.
This ruling, should it stand, would set a bad precedent for all online publications. With no clear definitions as to how one becomes a journalist when publishing online, the ruling would affect everyone who publishes on the Internet.
Suddenly, questions of where an article is printed could become critical. Would an online-only article from the New York Times be considered journalistic enough for journalistic legal protections?
With over 100 press passes given to bloggers at the Democratic National Convention during the 2004 election, the increasing influence of bloggers is being acknowledged on a national level. Even traditional news sources like the Washington Post and Newsweek had reporters who kept blogs dedicated to the convention. What would it mean from a legal perspective for print media to cross the line into Web media?
When Majority Leader Trent Lott remarked, ‘I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either,’ most major media outlets ignored it. About two weeks later, after the ruckus that bloggers created online, Lott was forced to resign as the head of the Republican Party.
The growth of blogging is starting to change the way news and information flow around the world. As new forms of media are invented in this technological age, it is important for laws to change so they do not get outpaced by technology.
It is increasingly apparent that the age-old adage that old dogs cannot learn new tricks is true. Those within the legislative and judicial systems often do not understand the full ramifications in technology-related cases and dated laws.
When the New York Times, BusinessWeek and the Mercury News cite the Think Secret blog as their source for information, what does it mean for a Think Secret writer not to be a legitimate member of the press?
James Huang is a third-year information and computer science major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.