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Teen reporter pays price for Apple coverage

Nicholas Ciarelli is an excellent journalist. Too bad. The poor kid's liable to be bankrupt before he's old enough to buy beer. All because he's very good at what he does -- and because he does it on the Internet.

Ciarelli is 19 years old, a freshman at Harvard. But he's been a journalist since middle school. In 1998, Ciarelli launched an Internet site -- they weren't called blogs back then -- called Think Secret, where he serves up news and rumors about his favorite electronic gadgets: the products of Apple Computer Inc.

''Am I obsessed?" Ciarelli mused last week. ''I don't know if I'm obsessed. Maybe some of Think Secret's readers are." That surely includes Apple's legal department, which went into Captain Ahab mode in January, with Ciarelli as the white whale.

In his seven-year career, Ciarelli has developed sources inside Apple that any newspaper reporter might envy. They could be employees of the company, or contractors, or parts suppliers -- who knows? But they tell Ciarelli many things that Apple doesn't want him to know. Last December, for instance, Think Secret alerted the world to Apple's Mac Mini, a small, low-cost Macintosh computer, two weeks before the product was to be revealed with due ceremony at the annual January Apple San Francisco love-in.

Apple chief executive Steve Jobs loves his little surprises, and hates to be cheated of them. Maybe that's why Apple in January sued Think Secret for daring to publish a variety of the company's trade secrets over the past two years, including the Mac Mini scoop.

It's not as if Ciarelli had revealed the secret formula for Coca-Cola. Attractive though it is, the Mac Mini contains little in the way of original technology. Still, Apple has a point. A too-early report of a new product could hurt sales, not only for the new gadget, but for gear already on store shelves. ''Such disclosures may . . . dampen consumer demand for current products," the Apple lawsuit says.

Everyone in the computer business remembers the tragic saga of 1980s computer titan Adam Osborne, also known as The Man Who Spoke Too Soon. When Osborne announced a new machine in 1982, months before it was available, customers were so impressed they stopped buying the dowdy old Osborne computers on store shelves. By the time the new machine was ready, Osborne was broke. No surprise, then, that everybody at Apple is bound by signed agreements to keep their mouths shut. OK, but how is that Ciarelli's problem? It's not his responsibility to fret over Apple's stock price, or to enforce Apple's nondisclosure agreements. If somebody comes to him with an interesting tidbit of news, it's his business to publish it.

But what if the information came from someone bound by law to keep his mouth shut? Apple says that Ciarelli actively induced somebody to violate his or her pledge of secrecy. The suit charges that Think Secret uses an anonymous e-mail system and a voice mail tip line to encourage leakers. The site even posted a note to attendees at an Apple conference. ''Did you hear something you weren't supposed to . . .?" the note read. ''We appreciate your insider news and Mac gossip." Apple says that messages like this make Think Secret a co-conspirator in an effort to steal the company's intellectual property. So Apple is demanding monetary damages from Ciarelli for misappropriation of trade secrets.

Think Secret is also caught up in an Apple lawsuit against the actual leakers. Apple is trying to subpoena the site's e-mail provider, in an effort to identify them. Apple's on firmer ground here, because contrary to popular myth, there's no First Amendment right of journalists to conceal the names of sources who may have broken the law. So it's no surprise that on Friday, a California state judge approved Apple's subpoena.

Some states -- not including Massachusetts -- have shield laws granting limited protections to reporters, and there's talk of a federal shield statute. But many of these laws cover only ''professional" reporters, not website operators. It seems to me journalists deserve the privileged status granted attorneys, doctors, and priests -- and that such protections should apply to Net-only publications. But that's not how the law reads. Think Secret may well have to give up its e-mails.

Apple refused to talk about the case with the Globe. But Ciarelli's attorney, Terry Gross of the San Francisco firm Gross & Belsky, had plenty to say. Gross said there are cases where a court might reasonably sanction a journalist for publishing information that threatened national security or the fair trial of a criminal defendant. But protecting Apple's secrets is no reason to restrict free speech. ''The public's right to know," said Gross, ''is weightier than a business interest in keeping its affairs private."

Besides, he added, traditional print and television journalists often base stories on leaked information, passed on by people who broke the law in providing it. But Think Secret is getting hammered because it's not part of a wealthy media conglomerate that buys ink by the barrel.

What would happen if Apple employees sent their secrets to me, and I made them the subject of next week's column? Would Apple sue The Boston Globe? We should be so lucky. No, Apple decided to tee off on a 19-year-old kid, hoping to make an example of him. It's a bonehead play from a company that's cultivated a warm and friendly image. Did Microsoft chairman Bill Gates buy 51 percent of the company, and forget to tell us?

Maybe Apple has forgotten how much of its extraordinary rebirth is due to fans like Ciarelli, loyalists whose Apple-centric websites are probably worth millions in free advertising every year. Or maybe Apple is counting on that loyalty, convinced that its customers will tolerate any amount of highhanded bullying from the world's coolest computer company.

Apple might be right. Even now, as Ciarelli faces the fight of his young life, he remains a true believer. ''The next computer I buy will be a Mac," he said. If he can afford one.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.


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