Apple's Chicken and Gizmodo's Egg: The Ethics of the iPhone 4G Mess

Every once in a while, the tech world undergoes something like a defining moment. The Apple-Gizmodo saga was one of those.

It has been chatted about so much online that to try and recap the entire kerfuffle would be pointless. Yet, at the same time, less attention has been paid to that always-difficult question of ‘what it all means’.

After all, what happened was that the mentality one of the biggest tech blogs around ran smack into the mindset of one of the biggest tech companies. On Gizmodo’s side were the ideals of journalism; on Apple’s the notions of law and order and corporate secrecy.

For weeks afterwards, the discussion that raged was essentially for the soul of the tech blogosphere. But who was right? And why does it even matter?


What's At Stake

The big debate over the iPhone saga was, of course, whether or not Gizmodo was: a) right to pay money for the prototype, and; b) whether they tried hard enough to return it. At stake are the new rules of ethics around blogging in the technology space. Here, more than anywhere else (except maybe pharmaceutical), secrets are key.

The chorus from the tech blogosphere was generally unanimous: Gizmodo’s methods were a little sketchy – but understandable. Their real mistake was outing the identity of the Apple engineer who lost the phone for no other reason than to push more views. The real villain of the story, it seemed, was Hogan – the guy who found the phone – as he was keen to cash in on his good fortune.

But there was more to it than that. Mashable’s Pete Cashmore suggested that not only has this event ended Apple’s era of secrecy, but that we were to blame for it. Our insatiable greed for information, Cashmore argued, was responsible for the increasing lust of tech blogs to go after a story in any which way. It wasn’t about Gizmodo or Hogan or even Apple – it was that the tech-blog reading public had become such slavering beasts for information that people were going to any lengths to get the smallest scrap of information.

It’s a tough argument to believe. After all, it assumes that it is we the reading public who created this lust. But is that true?


Which Came First? Apple's Secrecy or Gizmodo's Lust for Pageviews?

When it comes down to it, the one thing no-one seems to be talking about is this: Gizmodo’s quest for hits and Apple’s secrecy are part and parcel of the same process. It’s a chicken and egg question: you can’t answer which came first because they’re reliant on each other.

The tech industry runs on hype and innuendo. In fact, I’m willing to bet that if Apple were neither as secretive as they are nor as good at grand announcements, a good deal of their cachet would just disappear. I’m also pretty sure that Apple’s marketing department has at least one or two psychologists on staff; they’re are masters of the trick by which hiding something from someone makes them want it more. This is basic psych. It’s why we love surprises. It also happens to be why we love lingerie. But I digress.

So what we get is a cycle: tech companies need to produce hype, which they do by gathering secrecy and desire around their products. Tech blogs need to generate page views, so they’ll report on every little rumor they can. The two sides work to mutual benefit: blogs get the hits they need to sell ads and tech companies get the kind of marketing their ad departments couldn’t in their wildest imagination dream up.

Even Gizmodo themselves acknowledged this: Mark Wilson wrote that now that the secret of the fourth-gen iPhone was out of the bag, it was like the surprise of Christmas morning had been ruined. How perfect is that? Right here, crystallized, is the mentality of us tech-fans: we want the surprise, we want the wonder.

But it’s worth asking this: is the threat here not that the wonder is gone, but that, when it is, we have to deal with the fact that we’re just talking a cell phone? Or heck, call it a mini-computer. Whatever you want. The question still stands.


A Blogger's Responsibility

But at the end of the day, the entire mess comes down to one question: what is the role of the press in the tech sector?

Yet, though that sounds like a relatively complex question, the answer is simple: The responsibility of a blogger or a journalist is to her or his readers. And this is what a couple of prominent journalists recently told me: journalists are in the disclosure business. If you have information about something, you get it out and into your readers hands. A writer’s job is not to protect the things he or she write about; it’s to protect the interests of the people who read her or his stuff.

And here’s the thing: when people ask whether Gizmodo tried hard enough to return the iPhone, or whether they should have written about it, they’re assuming Gizmodo has a responsibility to Apple. They don’t. Their only worry should be their audience. Yes, of course they need Apple to write about them. But saying they should defer to Apple is like saying a political reporter should keep quiet about the government so that he can still write about them. It’s wrong and it’s wrong-headed; it gets the equation bass-ackwards.

The simple question at the end of the day here is not whether a tech blog should respect the rights of a company – it’s will it better for our readers if we publish this? And in this case, the answer is yes.

Why? Well think about this. When Steve Jobs ‘announces’ the fourth-gen iPhone, it will still be a brilliant product. It will have video calling, a really fast processor, an improved camera and all the benefits of OS 4.0. Yet, at the end of the day, it will still just be a smartphone. It will surf the web and send email, download apps and play games, and occasionally make the odd call. It won’t save the world. And it won’t even revolutionize the tech world. It will be a great update to a great product – but nothing more.

And by spilling the secret early, Gizmodo helped us all keep that in perspective. And that, I think, is better for all of us.

Written by Navneet Alang

Navneet Alang is a technology-culture writer based in Toronto. You can find him on Twitter at @navalang

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  • This was a very well written article, I really enjoyed reading it so it is a shame that I will have to disagree with its conclusion.

    Comparing outing a corrupt politician and outing a technological gadget which could sink or derail a product launch – and I want to point out that I have never owned a single Apple product and I am a deeply rooted Windows person. I digress.

    A corrupt politician has a moral and most likely a legal responsibility to act in a fair and unscrupulous way; as such, he or she – can without a doubt be held to a higher standard than the likes of you and I.

    Now; despite my adlib about de-railing the iPhone 4G’s future launch, we all know that it will sell just as well as it would have had there not been for an opportunistic (adj. Taking immediate advantage, often unethically, of any circumstance of possible benefit.) thief named Hogan.

    While he may not have grabbed the phone out of the guys pocket, he kept something that did not belong to him and once he figured out that it was something special, he tried his best to sell it to the highest bidder.

    However; I am also putting the blame on Gizmodo; twice. First, for blaming me, and you and everyone else that likes to read the latest tech news – that is amazingly narcissistic and borderline.

    Secondly; this whole mess has no root in journalistic integrity at all and saying it does, doesn’t make it true.

    Buying a stolen item is the same thing as fencing; you don’t appreciate it when the neighbors kids fences the stereo out of your car, why would you think that Apple should think differently?

    And really; I think I just made the only two points necessary, everything is moot – it is as simple as that.

    Gizmodo handled in stolen goods to perform corporate espionage; and then they cry foul when they are called on it. This had nothing to do with having to inform the public, Apple has a right to their secrets until they chose to make them public.

    Apple did nothing wrong, so calling for journalistic integrity and comparing it to something that the public has a right to know as in the case of… Gee, Watergate for instance, is so far fetched that it boggles the mind.

    Gizmodo – You were in the wrong, just owe up to it – tell Apple you are sorry and for crying out loud, would someone throw that Hogan guy in jail for a while.

  • Great article. Good read.

  • Ugh I cringe everytime I see an article about Gizmodo and the iphone leak. They overmilked it. (Sorry kind of deviates from the actual article but I can’t help it 😛 )