At this point, it's probably safe to say that most of the Internet knows about the ridiculous fracas brewing over the leak of the iPhone 4G. For those of you who somehow managed to miss the story, here is the Cliff's Notes version.
An Apple engineer got drunk on his birthday and left a next-gen iPhone sitting in a bar. Some savvy boozehound found it, tried to return it, failed, and decided to cash in on his good fortune. Gizmodo paid 5 grand for the phone and promptly stuck it up online. Millions of readers later, Apple responded by calling in the man.
A police task force (which Apple is on the steering committee for) raided Gizmodo Editor Jason Chen's house and stole all of his computers and data. Media-defenders gave a roar of outrage and now a legal brouhaha of epic proportions seems imminent.
One of the chief areas of contention lies around the unnamed individual who found the lost iPhone in the first place. Apple wants to know who he is, while Gizmodo believes it is their journalistic duty to protect his identity.
This is bad. Worse than it seems. I won't deny that Chen and his ilk have laudable goals, the expansion and protection of journalist's rights, but they have picked exactly the wrong way to fight for their ideals.
Apple has attacked online journalists before. A few years back they went apeshit on Jason O'Grady for leaking a much less interesting story. Apple lost that fight, which is probably why Chen and his compatriots are so optimistic about their chances of winning now.
Unfortunately, the circumstances behind both suits couldn't be different. O'Grady was given leaked information from a source. All he did was report on the information freely handed to him, which gave him a strong standing in his fight against Apple. Gawker Media, and by extension Chen, broke the law.
Both federal and state law in California protect journalists from having their offices searched or their sources exposed by government action. However, these protections are only active while the journalist obeys the law. California state shield laws do not protect journalists from being forced to reveal their sources if they are guilty of criminal activity.
Wired, Engadget, and an elite cadre of other tech journalists turned down the chance to buy the iPhone HD. Journalism does not extend to purchasing stolen goods.
The real problem here is less about what Gizmodo did and more about what they are actively doing to the institution of journalism. If this lawsuit goes against Chen, and all signs point to that as the most likely outcome, we (journalists) could end up losing quite a lot.
Apple has tens of billions of dollars in their war chest and an infamous hard-on for fucking with the First Amendment. Online journalism as an industry has a terrible amount to lose in rising to this fight. What exactly do we stand to gain?