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Rotten Apple?

Are Apple's strong-arm tactics – aggressively targeting reporters who leak information – putting the highly-lauded company at risk for a backlash?
 
 
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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 – as well as similar sites like Think Secret and AppleInsider, 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 dogpile, 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.