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United States9 March 2005

Apple v. ThinkSecret: confidentiality of sources must be respected

Reacting to US computer industry giant Apple’s attempts to find out the identity of the sources used by three online publications for some of their articles about Apple, Reporters Without Borders today called for online journalists, as well as those website operators and bloggers whose work constitutes real journalism, to be accorded the same legal protections as journalists with the traditional press.

"We believe that the principle of the confidentiality of sources is essential to journalism," the press freedom organization said. "Depriving online editors of this protection would set a dangerous precedent for freedom of expression. We call for the three websites involved in these cases to be treated exactly as news media and as therefore enjoying the same rights."

Apple accuses the three online publications -, and - of revealing confidential information about some of its products and wants to know if any of its employees were the source of the leaks.

Apple filed a lawsuit against ThinkSecret on 4 January, accusing it of disclosing "trade secrets" and demanding compensation for the damages sustained. The suit above all concerned a report about the Mac Mini budget computer that appeared in late December, before its official launch.

The lawyers for Nicholas Ciarelli, the student who run the ThinkSecret site, have invoked the recognised right of journalists to protect their sources. Since then, the debate in the press and in the court has focussed on the issue of whether this protection applies to a non-professional journalist and one who works solely for an online media.

The judge will therefore have to rule on a key point of press and Internet law, namely, whether a blogger or the editor of a personal website can enjoy the same protection as professional journalists, especially regarding the confidentiality of their sources.

As regards the other two sites, Apple is trying to get information either directly from the people who run them or by turning to their Internet access providers. In December, it asked Nfox, the company that provides the Internet connection for Powerpage to provide it with the e-mail messages received by Powerpage editor Jason O’Grady about Apple’s "Asteroid" product.

Apple then wrote directly to the cyber-freedom defence organization, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which has been defending Powerpage and Appleinsider, to demand the same information. Under US law, this type of request can be made in the form of a "subpoena." If someone refuses to comply with a subpoena, a judge must decide whether or not to enforce it.

During the preparatory meeting for the World Summit on the Information Society in Geneva in February, Reporters Without Borders stressed the need to protect website operators and bloggers and issued five recommendations for the protection of online free expression. The last of these says: "Website editors, including bloggers and those who operate personal websites, must enjoy the same protection and consideration as professional journalists because, like them, they exercise a fundamental freedom, the freedom of expression."

See the five recommendations

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