iPhone 4, Gizmodo, Apple: Bloggers Are Journalists

The big story continues to be Gizmodo’s iPhone 4 revelations, and a police raid in which editor, Jason Chen’s computers were seized and his house searched.

At issue here could be the rights of journalists to report the story they have in their hands, as corporate America continues its attempt to define bloggers as not being journalists, while offering recognition as journalists only to those writers who are connected to big name corporate media brands.

California’s Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team seized four computers and two servers from the editor’s house. They did so using a warrant by Judge of Superior Court of San Mateo.

The iPhone 4G

The move followed Gizmodo’s in-depth report on the features and design of an iPhone prototype the website had obtained, a report which quickly spread across the world’s media outlets last week.

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Gizmodo paid $5,000 to an unidentified party in order to obtain the iPhone. The unit itself was lost in a bar by an Apple engineer Gizmodo somehow managed to identify and then – breaking one of the cardinal rules of journalistic integrity, to protect the innocent as well as a journalist’s sources – named online. That last part is likely to have a hugely detrimental effect on the young engineer’s career.

These revelations must have caused a nightmare in Cupertino. Twitter went crazy. Gizmodo is estimated to have attracted billions of new readers. Apple subsequent request that the prototype be returned added a level of veracity to the claims.

These included description of a new, squarer case design; a 5-megapixel camera, the inclusion of a front-facing camera for video conferencing, camera flash, a higher-resolution display, metallic buttons and more. The report also revealed that the prototype carried a glass-type ceramic back (likely improving WiFi reception).

The internal components were clearly Apple-branded. Whether this turns out to be the fourth generation iPhone or not remains open to question.

What’s right or wrong?

Apple’s request that the product be returned was perfectly reasonable, as was Gizmodo’s response (it returned the device). Apple’s move to call in the police also seems reasonable – someone must have picked up the phone (which was disguised inside a case to look just like an ordinary iPhone 4GS), so someone somewhere made a profit on Apple’s mishap.

What isn’t reasonable is the move to raid the journalist’s house and seize his computer equipment. Nor was it reasonable the writer’s door was broken down by the police in their haste to raid the place. The writer wasn’t arrested, and was out at the time. Gizmodo parent company Gawker Media’ COO, Gaby Darbyshire, argues the search was illegal, citing California’s Shield Law, which protects journalists from revealing their sources.

Darbyshire said it expected the immediate return of the computers and servers. “Under both state and federal law, a search warrant may not be validly issued to confiscate the property of a journalist,” she wrote in a letter to San Mateo County authorities on Saturday.

“It is abundantly clear under the law that a search warrant to remove these items was invalid. The appropriate method of obtaining such materials would be the issuance of a subpoena,” she said.

Gawker founder Nick Denton says the case should let us find out if “bloggers count as journalists”, but that’s not completely clear. There’s another issue in that Apple regards the lost prototype as stolen property.

When Is Lost Stolen?

Daring Fireball’s John Gruber (who seems to be Apple’s favoured blogging voice these days, judging from the inside track on company business he appears to enjoy) wrote: “It is my understanding that Apple considers this unit stolen, not lost. And as for the “someone(s)” who “found” it, I believe it is disingenuous for Gizmodo to play coy, as though they don’t know who the someones are.”

Under Californian law, it is a requirement that lost property be handed in within 30-days of its being found. Apple is attempting to make use of this in an attempt to identify who sold the iPhone to Gizmodo. That the young engineer identified as the man who lost the unit allegedly remains at Apple suggests there may be more strands to the story.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is worried at these events for these reasons.

“You have a reporter who is disseminating newsworthy information to the public that are supposed to be protected from search and seizures. These protections apply to people who collect information in order to report it to the public regardless of what name you slap on them; blogger, journalist or whatever,” Jennifer Ganick, the EFFs civil liberties director told BBC News.

Apple’s Private Police?

The EFF is also concerned that in this case police officers could effectively be doing the investigative work of a private company.
“If there was some offence here it is not apparent what it is”, she said.

The Rapid Enforcement Allied Computer Team (React) is a Californian computer crime taskforce. Apple is reported to be one of 25 tech firms to sit on the steering committee.

There’s a two-fold danger for a free press:

Once obtained, Gizmodo could not have avoided writing the story and maintained faith in itself as a journalistic organisation.

Apple’s attempt to define bloggers as not journalists is extremely dangerous. The First Amendment was designed to protect the rights of those individual leafleters, agitators, pamphleteers and small publishers who helped form the intellectual framework of the US Revolution. Bloggers are a natural extension of that – small, mobile, news-gathering units.

At the end of the day, the person who is the journalist is the person who has the story, and the capacity to write it down. These are interesting times.

Written by Jon Edwards

Jon Edwards enjoys The Mighty Boosh, Can, John Lydon and Roller Derby.

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  • Alex

    Purchasing stolen property is criminal. Gizmodo and it’s employees should be more wary. Obviously the sellers interest wasn’t in returning the property to it’s owner. They were interested in profiting off of their discovery instead of doing the right thing, and just sending it to Apple. Or taking it to the police station, Apple store, ATT, etc, since it wasn’t theirs to sell anyway. People who sell things that aren’t their are criminals. People who buy stolen things are an accessory to the crime. Journalists aren’t bared from suffering the legal ramifications of participating in illegal activity.

  • My understanding is that professional journalists adhere to specific standards around ethics, sources, and journalistic voice. For example, professional journalists look for multiple independent sources to confirm facts. One reason journalism is a major is that it really is more than just writing through a widely-read platform.

    If bloggers want to claim journalistic protection, they should demonstrate journalistic ethics and behavior first.

  • Gabe

    As far as ethics go, I think journalists (the “professional” ones) often rely on single sources to find new material. Confirming facts might come in later, as Gizmodo did when they looked at the inner components and said some known persons indicated that the pieces’ numbers related to legit Apple products. This, to me, is the important part of looking for multiple independent sources. Trying to find a second lost iPhone is a completely different matter.

    And while some people might argue that the iPhone was stolen, that doesn’t explain nor justify illegal actions taken by the police. I don’t think you get your computer raided if you find/steal a lost usb key right?

    I don’t think journalistic ethics and recognition from others should be the sole reason justifying you journalistic knowledge…Anyway I guess we’ll all see how this unfolds.

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