In December, 2005, Nicholas Ciarelli, a well-connected young tech journalist who went by the pen name Nick de Plume, published a juicy bit of dish on his Web site. According to “highly reliable sources,” Apple would soon be releasing “a bare bones, G4-based iMac without a display,” he wrote.
Ciarelli’s site, Think Secret, was known as among the more reliable in the vibrant online community of Apple rumor pages, which seek to feed an ardent community’s hunger for inside information from a company legendary for keeping its lips sealed. This latest piece was big news, and it got even bigger when Apple went on the offensive — the company filed suit against Think Secret and “unnamed individuals” who’d given the site its secrets.
The action, of course, confirmed the accuracy of Ciarelli’s story. A few days after filing the suit, Apple CEO Steve Jobs unveiled the Mac Mini, exactly the kind of computer Ciarelli had fingered.
Apple’s case briefly made Ciarelli an online cause célèbre. Digital rights activists argued that he, like established journalists, was entitled to coverage under California’s reporter’s shield law, which protects journalists from giving up information on their sources. Apple disagreed, saying he had broken trade secrets laws — and a judge sided with the company.
Today brings news that Apple prevailed completely. According to a “settlement” the company entered into with Ciarelli, Ciarelli will close Think Secret. Writing in the strained voice of a Soviet prisoner, he reported the news in a press release on his site:
Apple and Think Secret have settled their lawsuit, reaching an agreement that results in a positive solution for both sides. As part of the confidential settlement, no sources were revealed and Think Secret will no longer be published. Nick Ciarelli, Think Secret’s publisher, said “I’m pleased to have reached this amicable settlement, and will now be able to move forward with my college studies and broader journalistic pursuits.”
A positive solution for both sides? Sure, Ciarelli gets to keep his sources — a good thing — but the settlement is a win for him only in the way that a person who gets mugged can be thankful he wasn’t knifed, too.
Apple wins everything here, closing down a journalist who did exactly what reporters are supposed to do — establishing contacts with insiders to shed light on a secret much in public demand.
Imagine if Dick Cheney were able to do the same thing to the New York Times, to shut down the paper for reporting on the “trade secret” of NSA surveillance, say?
Or do you think it’s too much to equate a company protecting its innovation with a government protecting illegal activity?
Granted the stakes are vastly different. But what’s the functional difference here, the difference as it regards our notions of journalism and a free press? What are reporters looking into corporate trade secrets — about environmental pollution or fraud or other chicanery — supposed to take from this settlement? Shut up or else, that’s what.
Am I mistaken, or was Apple the firm that once plumbed George Orwell for a famous TV ad? Probably I’m mistaken.