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United States30 May 2006

Court ruling protecting bloggers’ sources hailed as historic

Reporters Without Borders today hailed a Californian appeal court’s “historic” decision on 26 May that online journalists and bloggers have the same right to protect their sources as other kinds of journalists. The ruling was issued in a case between the US electronics manufacturer Apple and websites that posted confidential information about some of its products.

“We have often had occasion to stress, especially in connection with this case, that online journalists and bloggers whose activity is similar to journalism should enjoy the same protection as professional journalists working for the traditional media,” the press freedom organisation said.

“We were very shocked Apple’s attempt to ride roughshod over the principle of the confidentiality of sources by trying to make a distinction between bloggers and journalists,” Reporters Without Borders said. “Its position was all the more astonishing as it uses its community of fans, especially the online ones, to get people talking about its products.”

Reporters Without Borders added: “The Californian appeal court’s decision is historic because it gives a new legitimacy to bloggers. Even though they do not have press cards, they will henceforth have right of place in the world of news and information.”

In his ruling, the appeal court judge refused to make a distinction between “legitimate and illegitimate” news reports, warning that any attempt to go down this road would jeopardize the goals of the First Amendment (the constitutional amendment that protects free expression). He rejected Apple’s petition on the grounds of California’s so-called shield law, which protects the confidentiality of journalists’ sources. The text of the ruling (“Apple v. Does”) can be downloaded from the Reporters Without Borders website.

Apple was concerned about the confidential information about its products that was posted on two websites, Powerpage and Appleinsider, and it was trying to identify the employees responsible for these leaks.

It tried to get information from those in charge of the websites, and then from their Internet Service Providers. In December 2004, it asked Nfoc, the company handling Powerpage’s Internet connection, to hand over the e-mail messages received by its editor, Jason O’Grady, as part of the investigation into the leaks about Asteroid, one of the products concerned.

Apple then subpoenaed the Electronic Frontier Foundation - a cyber-freedom group that is defending Powerpage and Appleinsider in this case - demanding the same information. When someone refuses to comply with a subpoena under US law, the dispute can be referred to a judge. In this case, Apple’s subpoena was upheld by a lower court, prompting the referral to an appeal court.

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