For most of us in the IT journalism business, Gizmodo's aquisition
of a lost fourth-generation iPhone last week is the sort of lucky break we dream about. For the site, however, that dream-come-true could be turning into a nightmare. On April 25, editor Jason Chen arrived home to discover police in the process of executing a search warrant. Chen demanded to see the warrant, which authorized police to seize every computing or computer-related device in his home including keyboards, mice, floppy disks, and anything that could possibly have anything to do with a device manufactured after 1865.
When the details of the iPhone 4G went live online, it was immediately a question of when
Apple would respond, not if. In the recent past, Apple forced the closure of the longtime Apple enthusiast website ThinkSecret over the websites' (accurate) claim that the Cupertino-based company would reveal iWork and the Mac Mini. In 2006, Apple fought to discover the identity of individuals who had leaked information to AppleInsider and PowerPage. That case, O'Grady v. Superior Court
, was argued all the way up to the top of the California court system; the court eventually ruled that online journalists were entitled to protect their sources just as offline journalists protect theirs.
Gizmodo's lawyer, Gaby Darbyshire, has already sent a letter to the police claiming that the warrant was illegally obtained. Darbyshire's claim rests on a section of the California penal code specifically designed to protect journalists from attempts to seize their professional equipment. While the language of the shield law is clear and unambiguous, there's considerable question as to whether or not it applies to Chen's situation. Gizmodo bought the iPhone prototype for $5000, which makes them potentially liable for the theft of trade secrets. Under California law, Gizmodo had a responsibility to return the phone minus "a reasonable charge for saving and taking care of it."
It looks so innocuous
Even if Giz escapes felony charges, the shield law is designed to protect journalists from being forced to reveal their sources, not
to protect them from an ongoing felony investigation. There's no argument that the site is attempting to protect its source, given that it published a dossier on the fellow just last week. Our guess is that words like "settlement" will soon be floating between the two companies, but Apple may not want to. Jobs is notorious for controlling information pre-launch; Gizmodo's exclusive stole the air from what was undoubtedly planned as a major launch event. It wouldn't surprise us in the slightest if Apple went for the throat on this one; a company willing to shut down its own enthusiast press over a Mac Mini is a company that might kill over the iPhone 4G.