Bad Company

Amid all of my relentless Apple boosterism, I still feel it important to periodically speak out about where the company is wrong and where it behaves maliciously, a self-appointed duty of which I have not been particularly conscientious, admittedly. But, if you’ve got any streak of blue-blooded American fight in you, not to mention a hint of that brand of indignant pride for the primacy of the First Amendment in Our Way of Life, then it’s difficult to ignore this putrid lawsuit that Apple Computer has filed against several online journalists publishing their work on, well, Apple-boosting Web sites.

What transpired was this: before this past January’s Macworld Expo, several highly accurate rumors about then unannounced Apple products appeared at the rumor-based Web site Think Secret. Wasting little time, Apple quickly filed a lawsuit against the publisher of Think Secret and other “unnamed individuals,” ostensibly to smoke out the rumor sources but, in effect, attempting to put a chill on rumor activity in Apple fandom at large. (This particular lawsuit also happens to be just the latest in several similar actions the company has taken to protect its proprietary rights.)

Drawing Lines

This lawsuit, however, is a new kind of ugliness. On its surface, it has a bitter taste you might be inclined to take down with all the good that Apple brings into the world, were it not for its potentially ruinous outcomes. The argument that Apple is pursuing — that these individuals should not be afforded rights under the First Amendment because they are not “legitimate news sources” — is extreme. It draws a line between capitalized news organizations and independent news organizations, and it looks to defuse the protections of the First Amendment for every independent journalist or blogger using the Internet as her primary vehicle for expression.

If successful, its implications go beyond just the matter of these few individuals. But even if they did not, I find it unnerving to watch a huge corporation brings its might to bear against a small number of individuals whose industrious efforts are geared at nothing more than furthering Apple’s own glory.

Speak Up

It’s a safe wager to say Apple is counting on the idea that the legal affairs of public companies bore most people to distraction; they’ve calculated, certainly, that any damage done to public relations will be minimal, and such risk would be clearly mitigated by the benefit of chastened and sealed lips throughout their ship.

I hope they’re wrong. There are voices more prominent and more eloquent than mine that have already spoken out, and I hope they’re joined by more. I hope that there’s a loud and unhappy clamor all over the Internet that will become impossible to ignore in Cupertino before too long. And, as much as I care deeply for Apple and what it represents, and as much as I respect the superhuman talents of Steve Jobs, I hope they learn that this lawsuit is just bad business.

  1. I agree with you that this is an awful attempt on the first amendment rights of independent journalists.

    On the other hand, if you look at it from the corporate perspective, there are logical reasons for pursuing these suits. First and foremost, every company has to work hard to protect their trade secrets; if they are not diligent in their protection, then they are less likely to win a suit against more formidable attempts to steal their secrets. (It’s early so I’m not sure if I’m as coherent as I’d like to be.)

    There are two basic requirements for something to be considered a trade secret:
    1. that something must give a competitive advantage in the market, and
    2. there must be a set system in place to prevent that something from becoming common knowledge.
    The extreme example is Coca-Cola, where they go to crazy lengths to protect the recipe, but you can safely bet that every company has its share of trade secrets. Apple has plenty. They generally protect their secrets with non-disclosure agreements, that strictly hold employees (and contractors) to a clause of silence about certain products and practices.

    These non-disclosure agreements are legal contracts, and a breach of one can be a pretty big deal. Unfortunately, the only way for Apple to find out WHO broke their contract, they must sue the websites out there that report these rumors.

    I don’t think that Apple really wants the rumor sites to go away – these sites help to build the hype that reaches feverish pitch with Jobs’ keynote speeches at MacWorld and WWDC. However, they do have a legitimate need to protect their secrets by removing employees who are willing to sell their information (or give it away freely) to anyone who may ask. (Think how dangerous knowledge of Apple’s next plans could be in the hands of Microsoft. *shudder*)

    Also, to a minor extent, these rumor sites can actually harm the marketplace because of their conjecture. For example, last year when the iPod mini was announced, many people were upset initially because the minis were more expensive than most Mac rumor sites had predicted. Apple never promised cheap iPod minis, but because these rumor sites had, people still expected them. If there had been no rumors, would the price have been as big a deal? Probably not, judging solely by the market’s favorable acceptance of the iPod mini anyway.

    So yeah, it’s a shame that they have to target these rumor sites, but it really does make sense from a corporate perspective.

  2. Ste: I would agree with most of what you’ve said, I’m just not sure that, because it can be rationalized in a corporate context, it necessarily makes it rational in a wider context. The corporate world, for all it gives us as a society, also institutionalizes lots of practices that are harmful to us as a republic, in my opinion.

    But I’ll grant too that, where you wrote your very well-reasoned reply in the early morning hours, I wrote my original rant under the duress of emotional overreaction. I stand by the sentiment of what I said, but I should have put in the time to research everything more thoroughly to better represent Apple’s position — including that link that LintHuman supplied. Mea culpa.

  3. Gruber’s posts have a way of make me go “of course, silly!”, and that the case with this one too.

    I do very much symphatize with ThinkSecret – an easy standpoint to take, but still, following the weird laws that rule my own mind, they haven’t really done much wrong.

    Real law is quite different, and if Apple has a case, I’ll just say that it might not be pretty, but it’s fair.

  4. John Gruber’s post provides, as always, a lucid and astute commentary to the whole affair (that’s why I subscribe to his site; that and the cool t-shirt). However, while he convinces in his rebuttal of the “New York Times argument” he doesn’t actually refute the notion that Apple might in some way be acting immorally.

    The thing that’s important to remember here is this: matters of law can be resolved more easily (because of their public nature) than matters of ethics. Intentions are internal things, and unless Apple’s intentions (as a corporate body) are expressed in way that is open to us as members of public, then they will remain hidden from us. With no way of knowing whether Apple is being vindictive, or is merely acting (with regrettable consequences for ThinkSecret) to preserve itself, making moral judgements seems—to me at least—premature.

  5. “the notion that Apple might in some way be acting immorally”

    I’m sure other less prominent of Apple’s policies might strike some of as immoral as well. That probably true for most large corporations. We seem to expect more from Apple because we feel a certain way about their products: the company’s good design seems to imply to us they should also have good ethics.

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