Minority Report: Apple versus the free press

Is the Mac maker biting the hand that feeds it?

Is the Mac maker biting the hand that feeds it?

Despite potential backlash, Apple is moving ahead - successfully - with lawsuits against enthusiast websites and blogs that leaked product secrets. It shows just how sacred the company considers its intellectual property, says Seb Janacek.

It's ironic that the company once credited with kick-starting the desktop publishing revolution now stands accused of putting the boot into the nascent web publishing industry.

Apple has won the first stage of a legal battle against three Mac enthusiast websites it claims has published confidential information about future products.

The sites involved have been told they must reveal their sources to Apple. The judge presiding over the case ruled that the criminal activity of leaking private corporate data outweighed the reporters' traditional right to protect their confidential sources.

The legal action has sparked outrage in the Mac community with the company being accused of bullying tactics. Meanwhile, civil rights groups are claiming the freedom of speech of online journalists is under threat.

It is a surprising move for Apple to take such brutal action against its own fan base. In an earlier column, I described how the Apple rumour mill, which is entirely generated and maintained by Mac fans, was one of the company's greatest assets.

The sustained interest generated by websites and blogs (including those involved in the legal cases) helps fill the vacuums between product launches with healthy speculation and anticipation - and involves zero effort from Apple.

The company has a history of fanatical secrecy about future products and has acted swiftly to shut down online reports that stray too close to the mark.

In the past, genuine articles could be identified when pictures and details were labelled 'at the request of Apple Computer Inc'. However, the enthusiast sites and bloggers have clearly been getting bolder and the company has decided that warnings aren't enough any more.

Apple is within its rights to pursue individuals who broke non disclosure agreements and shared confidential company information. It is a company that thrives on innovation and has a long list of imitators. To lose inside information on future product development is to lose its competitive edge and risk serious damage to the company's bottom line.

But the suits are at odds with the shiny, happy image the company likes to portray.

While Apple undoubtedly regrets the negative publicity the legal action is generating and probably feels uncomfortable adopting the unlikely persona of corporate heavy, the company clearly figures it can risk highly unpopular lawsuits and get away without too much damage to its reputation.

It's probably right.

Public awareness of the ongoing case and the ensuing outrage will be most prominent among its customers - the Mac fans who follow the circus through the very blogs and websites undergoing legal attack.

And no matter how unpalatable and misguided the legal action may be for Mac fans, any sort of defection or shift of loyalty would be largely unthinkable - given that a significant part of Mac fandom is born out of a rejection of the alternatives, predominantly Microsoft.

Where the ramifications of the lawsuits will be felt most is within the enthusiast website and blogging movement.

The online publishing genie is well and truly out of the bottle. According to Technorati, a website tracking the proliferation of the blogosphere, a new blog is created every 2.2 seconds, which translates to about 38,000 new ones sprouting up each day.

Despite its rapid growth, blogging is still an emerging medium, brimming with enthusiasm and possibility but riddled with potential pitfalls. Much of the outrage around the case is concerned with whether the website's authors and their sources should have protection from corporate heavy handedness.

Apple doesn't think so. The company's attorneys were quoted in a recent silicon.com article as referring to the publications' editors as "so-called" journalists. Apple attorney George Riley added in court: "There was no journalism here. They were simply fencing stolen information by publishing it verbatim."

California law shields journalists "connected with or employed by" newspapers, magazines, periodical publications and wire services from divulging their sources - but it doesn't explicitly mention internet sites. The judge in the case declined to afford the bloggers in these cases the same protection.

Both Think Secret and Apple Insider (two of the sites involved in disputes with the Mac maker) have an impressive record of predicting what's coming off the Cupertino conveyer belt and there's no doubting the ability and dedication of the authors and bloggers involved.

However, it's the manner in which the authors of Mac websites and blogs operate which is so material - often without the checks and balances enshrined in the professional media.

Many established journalists have watched the evolution of the blogosphere and its occupants' activities with the same morbid fascination as seeing trapeze artists perform without a safety net.

As with any new communication medium, many of the rules and standards have yet to be determined. And in some ways, the ongoing lawsuits will be formative in shaping the next evolutionary stage for the blog phenomenon.

For Apple, the company may be biting the hand that feeds it but it's identified that there's a clear definition between healthy speculation and company secrets. And it's indicated how prepared it is to protect the latter - even if it does lose a few friends along the way