Judge: Web Sites Must Reveal Sources

Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg issued a preliminary ruling Thursday that states three Mac enthusiast sites can be forced to expose their sources to Apple Computer. Kleinberg said journalistic protections do not cover Web sites, and will hear further arguments Friday from Apple and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).

The hearings stem from a lawsuit filed by Apple against Web sites that reported about an upcoming FireWire-based interface for GarageBand, code-named Asteroid. Apple claimed its "trade secrets" were illegally disclosed and issued subpoenas demanding information the individuals who leaked the news.

The suit has sparked an outcry across the Internet from many who feel journalists should not be forced to reveal their sources, and has prompted the EFF to offer legal counsel. The EFF requested that the court block Apple's subpoenas, which Kleinberg denied Thursday.

For its part, Apple claims the "shield laws" that protect journalists from revealing their sources only cover "legitimate press," which does not include such Web sites. Apple also filed a similar lawsuit in January against rumor site Think Secret, which is run by Harvard University student Nicholas Ciarelli.

Judge Kleinberg agreed with Apple's stipulation in his decision on Thursday, but has yet to make a final ruling.

"The question unanswered by the preliminary ruling is what are legitimate members of the press? It's custom for a news outlet to credit one of its peers for breaking a story. I can think of several print publications -- all arguably legitimate press -- that credited ThinkSecret for breaking news on iPod mini," Jupiter Research senior analyst Joe Wilcox told BetaNews.

"I would think that other legitimate members of the press regarding at least one these sites as legitimate press to be enough validation."

Wilcox noted the larger issue at stake in the case is blogging. "Blogs have become an important back-channel for disseminating information. But I would argue that most bloggers are not legitimate members of the press because they aren't bound by journalistic ethics."

"I would consider any site that follows good journalistic practice of three sources, particularly on rumored products, to be reasonably legitimate," added Wilcox. "I wonder how much of the preliminary ruling is colored by perceptions about blogging."

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