Think Secret: Damn you, Steve Jobs

by Mathew on December 20, 2007 · 30 comments

The Apple rumour site Think Secret has posted a note saying that it has reached a settlement with Apple over the lawsuit the computer company filed against it for leaking company secrets, and that it is “a positive solution for both sides.” No doubt any kind of settlement that doesn’t involve millions of dollars or jail time is a relief for Nick Ciarelli — the Harvard student who ran the site and has been hounded by Apple for several years now — but I fail to see how it’s positive for anyone.

This case is separate from another case involving bloggers and company secrets, in which Apple tried to get PowerPage, AppleInsider and Think Secret to reveal the names of the sources they got their information from. In that case, a lower court ruled that the bloggers weren’t protected by California’s “journalist shield” law, and that they would have to turn over the information — but an appeals court disagreed, saying they were entitled to the same protection as journalists.

Think Secret was sued separately for divulging trade secrets — and while the site didn’t have to turn over the names of its sources, it has still been forced to shut down. Meanwhile, Apple comes off looking like some power-crazed South American dictator, the kind who can’t stand it when the media reveal government secrets and so arrests the entire press corps. I know that keeping secrets and then revealing them to an adoring public at Macworld is a time-honoured Jobs tradition, but this is ridiculous.

As Mike Masnick notes at Techdirt, this will have a chilling effect on journalists — and I’m including publications like Think Secret and Apple Insider in that description. Apple should be ashamed of itself. My blogging friend Rex Hammock has a moving tribute to Think Secret here.

Update:

Ars Technica has a good overview of the case and those that preceded it — and according to the EFF, Nick Ciarelli is pretty happy with the settlement (which the EFF suggests Apple was in danger of losing). If he got a half-decent settlement, then I’m glad. But I still think it sends the wrong message to shut the site down.

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  • Rikk

    On the other hand… Apple has every right to protect its interests. Think Secret (whom i've read for years) knew exactly what game they were playing and it was fun while it lasted.. but Apple as a South American dictator? What over-the-top nonsense. Surely journalistic and blogger exaggeration is just as chilling in that it too is the enemy of truth?

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Exaggeration for emphasis — even hyperbole — is hardly as chilling
    as shutting down an independent journalist. Why not go after the Wall
    Street Journal or the New York Times? Same principle. Because Apple
    knows they would have a fight on their hands, whereas a 19-year-old
    will settle and get on with his life. That doesn't make it right.

  • Nigel Tufnel

    So a company has no rights when it comes to trying to protect their information? I'm OK with the site existing I guess (in fact, I've been there a time or two myself..), and I'm OK with them being able to publish what they choose (Anything less would be censorship, correct? And we don't want that.). But when Apple cornered them, they wouldn't say where they got their information from. As far as a journalist protecting his/her sources..come on guys, are we talking about Watergate-sized issues here, or a company's product lineup? Does the public 'need to know this'? Did I really 'need' to know whatever I went to TS to read about in the past? Somebody yell out “slippery slope!”, but I can't give the same weight to this.

  • Nigel Tufnel

    Mathew, just read your reply to Rikk.. I don't think it's any better when the WSJ does it either. Like most things in life, there is more grey here for me than black and white.

  • Matt

    Im sure Apple paid Think Secret a nice big price for the domain name and website .

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Nigel, I think you said it yourself — they should be able to publish
    whatever they choose (within the bounds of libel, of course) because
    anything less would be censorship. So then why do you think it's okay
    that the site be shut down? I realize that the intimate details of
    whether the new iMac has a Firewire 2 port or not are hardly
    earth-shattering questions, but the principles of free speech and
    journalistic protection have to be defended in *every* case, not just
    the important ones — it's called setting a precedent.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    I'm not sure of that at all, Matt.

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  • bigbrother

    Wow you are a prize prick. I came across you recently and find what you write to be so pointless it makes good reading. Apple is a company that has every right to protect its private information. It has shareholders, employees and customers! Spotty teenagers and juvenile journalists think its one big joke and they have some right to say what they like.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Well, that makes two of us then, because your comment is pretty
    pointless — and it doesn't even make up for it by being funny. So
    Apple should be able to squash whoever it wants, just because they
    posted a rumour? You must be a lawyer.

  • Gary

    Apple has every right to protect itself. Apple is no different than any other company except, perhaps, they're more aggressive. In a perfect world, if Think Secret did nothing wrong, then there would be no settlement and Apple would have to take a hike. I'm not naive. I realize that Apple may have been able to shut them down simply because Think Secret couldn't afford the legal fees to fight Apple. But, then again, Apple may indeed have been in the right. Why does everyone automatically assume that Apple (or for that matter, any large company) is simply a bully?

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Protect itself from what, Gary? You can't tell me that a rumour on
    ThinkSecret is going to seriously impact Apple's business. Not even
    Apple's lawyers believe that, or they would have taken it to court.

  • http://www.yourmaclifeshow.com Shawn King

    Apple itself has pointed to rumors and rumor sites as having had a material impact on it's financials in the past – the most prominent example being the rumors surround the a Powerbook's release date:
    http://www.atpm.com/6.02/jasonpismo.shtml

    A more reasoned response to this issue has been posted here:
    http://theshapeofdays.com/2007/12/20/think-secr


    Shawn King
    Host/Executive Producer
    Your Mac Life
    http://www.yourmaclifeshow.com

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    So because Apple says rumour sites affected its financials, we should
    just automatically believe it, Shawn? You're a pretty trusting guy.
    But then, I guess because it's Apple, we're supposed to just assume
    that its motives are pure.

    And thanks for the link to the “more seasoned” response. My only
    question after reading it is: seasoned by what? I can think of a lot
    of things that post has been soaking in, and none of them are
    complimentary. Bloggers “need to be chilled”? Journalism's moral
    compass needs to be “un-stuck by the occasional high-profile lawsuit”?
    What a load of bollocks.

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  • Gary

    So, because Apple can't provide indisputable proof that they were hurt, they have no right to protect themselves? Or, that they have to wait until they've been hurt to take action?

    First, this is similar to protecting intellectual property (patents, trademarks, etc.). You have to make the effort to protect yourself even if the violation has little or no effect on you. If you don't, from a legal point of view, it makes it harder to go after others who harm you. If you don't protect yourself from one guy, the courts often decide that you gave up the right to protect yourself altogether.

    Second, are you saying that unless Apple is hurt (and can prove it), it's okay for someone to post their secrets? Is it okay to accept and sell stolen goods if the original owner can't prove they were harmed?

    Third, you think we're gullible for trusting Apple. It's not that I necessarily trust Apple. But, why should I trust bloggers? Who are these people?

    Finally, it looks like Think Secret is happy with the outcome. They're claiming victory over Apple (see here: http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?…).

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Yes, Apple should be able to provide indisputable proof that they were
    hurt — stifling free speech should have a pretty high bar set for it,
    don't you think? And yes, they should have to wait until they've been
    hurt.

    As for the argument that you have to sue every now and then just to
    show that you care, that seems to be a justification for just about
    any lawsuit Apple or any other company chooses to launch — if that's
    the world you want to live in, you're welcome to it.

    I was wondering how long it would be before someone compared what
    Think Secret did to accepting stolen property. News flash: corporate
    “secrets” — including ones that Apple was planning to release anyway,
    which as far as I'm concerned means they don't really qualify as
    secrets in the first place — isn't even remotely like stealing
    physical property. I assume you got that argument from the RIAA, which
    loves to compare copyright infringement to theft, with about as much
    success.

    And whether or not ThinkSecret is happy or not is irrelevant. Not only
    are they probably not allowed to criticize Apple as part of the
    settlement, that isn't even the point. See my latest post — I'm sure
    you'll find lots to get angry about in there too.

  • http://www.yourmaclifeshow.com Shawn King

    “So because Apple says rumour sites affected its financials, we should just automatically believe it, Shawn?”

    Do you have any reason *not* to believe it? And as I “lived through” the period spoken about in the referenced article, I know many people who did not buy Powerbooks based on those rumors.

    “You're a pretty trusting guy.” You don't know me very well. I barely trust my wife. :)

    And as to “seasoned by what?”, you've got to agree he makes a better argument than “What a load of bollocks.” :) Care to detail exactly what was bollocks? I'm all ears.

    Shawn King
    Host/Executive Producer
    Your Mac Life
    http://www.yourmaclifeshow.com

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    As I mentioned to someone else, there should be a pretty high bar set
    for squashing free speech, and “Apple says some blogger really hurt
    their sales” just isn't good enough for me, I'm afraid — nor is your
    anecdotal “evidence.”

    Detailing all the problems in the blog post you linked to would take
    too long, but here's a start: Harrell's argument begins by saying we
    give journalists a long leash when it comes to committing crimes –
    but Think Secret didn't commit a crime. Having a blog that posts
    rumours doesn't qualify as “tortious interference,” no matter how many
    times he says it does.

    And the term “trade secrets” doesn't extend to things you were
    planning to reveal soon anyway, at least not in any ruling I've ever
    seen. KFC's special recipe is a trade secret — what colour the new
    iPod is going to be just doesn't qualify.

    Harrell also says that Think Secret wasn't “engaged in journalism in
    any meaningful sense of the word.” So free speech should be suppressed
    unless it meets some standard of “important” or “meaningful”
    journalism? That's a nasty road to go down. That's more than just
    bollocks — it's idiotic.

    As for the argument that bloggers “need to be chilled” and journalists
    should be sued from time to time to “un-stick their moral compass,” I
    only said it was bollocks because words failed me — and continue to
    fail me. It's so asinine it's difficult to come up with a cogent
    response. What Think Secret did wasn't “immoral” in any way that makes
    sense, so I'm not even sure what Harrell is driving at. Companies
    aren't moral entities, and so revealing their “secrets” couldn't
    possibly be immoral, or even unethical for that matter.

    It's just a big, fat truckload of stupid.

  • Gary

    “As for the argument that you have to sue every now and then just to show that you care, that seems to be a justification for just about any lawsuit Apple or any other company chooses to launch” — You may have misunderstood me. The fact is, that if you don't protect yourself against one foe, the court often considers that you've given up your right to protect yourself against any other foes. No, this isn't exactly the world I care to live in, but it is the world we all live in. And, so we (and Apple) have to play by the rules until we can change those rules.

    Also, I'm not defending Apple (though it may sound like I am). I'm just saying that I (nor most of us) know enough about this to know if Apple has or hasn't done anything wrong. However, there seem to be a lot of people who automatically assume that since Apple is a huge corporation, and ThinkSecret is the little guy, that Apple must be a mean bully. The thought is that the people at ThinkSecret are a group of honest, well-meaning people that don't even make money at what they are doing. They are doing what they do for the benefit of mankind. Face it. They are most likely like everyone else and are doing this to make money.

  • Tyler Hurst

    Why is this bad? It SHOULD be illegal to reveal company secrets. It’s not like Think Secret was a whistleblower for illegal government practices.

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  • Duke

    Someone should pick this up, call it Think Stealthy or something.

  • Nigel Tufnel

    Wow. Copyright infringement isn't theft? Maybe it isn't technically considered theft (admittal of ignorance here; I honestly don't know), but it sure feels that way to me. If you didn't pay for the rights to keep that song/movie on your hard drive, then I don't think it should be there. Your 'close personal friend' on the other side of the globe may graciously allow you to download it, but that doesn't make it OK.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    In fact, copyright infringement isn't theft, legally speaking — at
    least according to the U.S. Supreme Court. That's because intellectual
    “property” isn't really property; stealing your car deprives you of
    the use of your car, but copying a song doesn't deprive the artist of
    anything but the theoretical revenue from a theoretical lost sale.

  • com2

    EyeThink Secret

  • com2

    EyeThink Secret

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