March 25, 2005
by Scott Thill
Writing on his blog on March 12, new media guru Dan Gillmor
made a bold statement.
"I'm writing this on a Mac. If I were buying a replacement
today, I'm not at all sure I'd make the same choice again."
High drama for a company that has built its reputation upon
the shoulders of a fan base that approaches fanaticism in their enthusiasm
for all things Apple.
Gillmor's post was prompted by the March 11 decision by Santa
Clara Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg that Apple Computer can compel
the internet service provider Nfox to disclose the confidential sources
of PowerPage.org publisher Jason O'Grady. The Apple vs. Does (as
in John Does, referring to the unnamed leakers) ruling could directly
harm the privacy rights of all journalists.
Since 1995, O'Grady's popular site has been closely following
and reporting developments at Apple. O'Grady has been a Mac fan ever since
he landed one of the first Macintosh computers a 128k back
in 1985. But this latest strong-arm tactic by Apple not only has O'Grady
and his site (www.powerpage.org)
as well as similar sites like ThinkSecret and Apple Insider, who
were also implicated in the case on the ropes; it has the potential
to destabilize what for Apple has been a dedicated, decades-long following.
The rationale provided by Apple in its seven-page complaint
is a familiar one. The Cupertino-based innovator claims that its ability
to stay competitive in a cutthroat personal computer and software market
is thoroughly dependent on its need for secrecy, and that its competitors
can gain an unfair advantage over Apple should they learn ahead of time
the details, in O'Grady's case, of a new firewire audio interface for
Apple's Garageband software called "Asteroid." The fact that
Apple's stock hasn't been negatively affected by O'Grady and company's
transgressions or that online journalists have been tipping off the Mac
faithful with ahead-of-schedule news for years does not seem to enter
into the equation. But there is a new variable at work in the equation,
and its name is Steve Jobs.
"Jobs is notorious for wanting to control the media's
take on Apple," asserts Andrew Leonard, technology writer for Salon.com
and Wired, "and this is far from the first time that Apple
has resorted to legal means to go after web sites that have leaked info
about the company."
But ever since Steve Jobs returned to the Apple fold in 1996
as CEO, the company that has asked the world to "Think Different"
about computers and their almost limitless possibilities has ironically
been pursuing conventional legal means that is, suing anyone who
they feel compromises the value of Apple's stock to safeguard its
secrets. That move has segments of Apple's dedicated following in an uproar,
especially since they have historically provided no small measure of buzz,
community and support to the company, even when it was floundering.
As O'Grady told the Online Journalism Review's
Mark Glaser in January, "I'm sure I've helped sell an ungodly amount
of equipment. But now Apple is really successful, their stock is flying
high, and maybe they're getting some bad legal advice."
O'Grady's not alone in his disillusionment. Online and print
journalists, as Glaser reports, from the San Jose Mercury News, PC
Magazine and many other publications are taking Apple to task for
its belligerent behavior; even Forbes and the Wall Street Journal
have jumped on the dog pile, noting that the online weblogs Apple finds
so threatening are the very ones that have helped generate excitement
and revenue for the company in the past.
"By going after online news sites like Apple Insider
and PowerPage, Apple may tarnish its image as a supporter of the underdog,"
explains Kurt Opsahl, staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation,
the digital civil liberties organization representing PowerPage, as well
as ThinkSecret and Apple Insider. "Its legions of fans supported
Apple over the years, and actions against its own supported may ultimately
be to its detriment."
But Leonard argues that those cyber-literate legions should
have known exactly what they were getting into, especially knowing what
they know about Jobs. "I have total sympathy for giving bloggers
the same protections as traditional journalists, but also think they should
have known the dangers involved with leaking info about this particular
company. (Secrecy) has always been Jobs' modus operandi."
The point everyone seems to be missing, Opsahl explains,
is that this recent ruling carries with it restrictive ramifications as
far as it compromises journalism wherever it may occur.
"The court's broad-brush ruling is not limited to online
journalists, and asserts a wholesale exception to the journalist's privilege
when the information is alleged to be a trade secret. This threatens journalists
of all stripes."
Further, if Apple is interested in continuing to be perceived
as a viable alternative to its nemesis Microsoft, who many Apple followers
consider to be a multinational monolith interested only in total domination
of personal computing's economic sphere, then they might want to relax
their heavy-handed approach to divulged secrets. Especially since Microsoft
might have let O'Grady and his blogging cohorts off the hook.
"Oddly enough, Microsoft has been fairly relaxed about
online news sites reporting on its upcoming products," explains Opsahl.
"Indeed, many companies see pre-release buzz as a positive portion
of marketing efforts. Apple's actions have opened itself up to a new set
of imagery, very different from the previous attitudes."
Yet Microsoft's reach is so extensive and overpowering that
many feel Apple's reliance upon the courts to solve its own breaches of
confidentiality is an explosive issue only for the moment. When the smoke
clears, the legions of iPodders who have helped fuel Apple's amazing resurgence
will most likely still stand by the personal computing revolutionary.
Perhaps until the end.
"I think the message here is the same it's always been with respect to Apple: Be careful!" Leonard concludes. "As for what impact this will have on the Apple faithful? Zero."
Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com, while finding the time to rant for Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, AOL and others. His first novel, The Dangerous Perhaps, should be done by the time the War on Terrorism is over.
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