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Apple is suing 19-year-old Nicholas Ciarelli. Is he an arch Web villain or a cyber hero?

(Correction: Because of incorrect information from the subject, the high school from which Nicholas Ciarelli graduated was misspelled in a June 25 Living/Arts profile. It is Cazenovia High School.)

CAMBRIDGE -- Meet Nick dePlume.

By day, he's an unassuming college student and intrepid campus journalist. By night, on weekends, and during school vacations, he's the scourge of Apple Computer and its ever-vigilant legal team: a Web-spawned version of the cunning archfiends who -- holy trade secrets, Batman! -- prey upon the good citizens of Gotham City (er, Cupertino) with a brazen disregard for playing by the rules.

To meet dePlume in person, therefore -- real name: Nicholas Ciarelli; age: 19; primary occupation: Harvard undergraduate -- is something of a letdown, villainwise.

Boyish-looking and soft-spoken, dressed in standard issue geek chic (blue-striped cotton shirt, wrinkled pants), he's not exactly the Joker type, taunting his foes with malevolent insouciance. Nor does he appear to have crawled out of somebody's basement, Penguin-style, bent on upsetting Apple's cart for personal gain and glory.

Heck, he's not even planning to swap his PowerBook G4 for a Dell laptop and a Steve Jobs pincushion doll.

''Have my feelings about Apple changed? No, I don't think so," Ciarelli (pronounced Chir-elli) says during an interview in Harvard Square the morning after he finished freshman-year exams and prepared to head home for the summer.

''I'd rather not be a target of this lawsuit," he continues, nibbling on a croissant at a restaurant near Harvard Yard. ''But the next computer I buy will be an Apple. I mean, I'm not burning my hardware over this."

Concerning the lawsuit, in which he's accused of publishing proprietary information about Apple products on his Think Secret website (www.thinksecret.com), Ciarelli has little to say. At the heart of the matter, though, lies Apple's contention that his site unlawfully disseminated news about unreleased products without authorization. Specifically, Apple is suing Ciarelli for posting details of the Mac mini (its low-cost home computer) two weeks prior to its debut at the MacExpo in January.

Apple further alleges that Ciarelli obtained his information from anonymous sources inside the company, then violated state law by publishing it. Ciarelli has responded in an affidavit that he does not use anonymous sources (knowingly, anyway) and is protected by the rights accorded all journalists. The suit has raised First Amendment concerns among groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which monitors free-speech and free-press issues in the digital world.

Ciarelli was notified in January of the suit's filing in Santa Clara (Calif.) Superior Court. Though he had been the recipient of earlier cease-and-desist letters, he admits the filing came as a shock. To his knowledge, he says, Apple had never sued a website before.

''We've always said this is about independent, online publishers being able to report on news we obtained legally," says Ciarelli, who is being represented pro bono by San Francisco attorney Terry Gross. ''Apple would not be suing The New York Times, I'm guessing, in large part because the Times can easily afford to defend itself." Ciarelli and Gross filed a motion to dismiss the suit in March.

One irony of being ensnared in the lawsuit, Ciarelli notes, is that it has twice generated news stories in his own paper, The Harvard Crimson, for which he covers finance and fund-raising at the world's wealthiest university.

''I've done my best not to let it affect me," Ciarelli continues. ''I know I didn't do anything wrong. But regardless, you have to defend the suit. And whether you're right or not, that can get costly."

Whatever the cost or outcome, the lawsuit has already cast Ciarelli as a latter-day David battling one of the computer industry's Goliaths. And even those who harbor a somewhat less mythic view of Ciarelli agree the battle is an important one, given that the Internet's rules of engagement are poorly defined and swiftly evolving.

''If the suit against Think Secret is supposed to be a big hammer, it's not working." says Shawn King, host of ''Your Mac Life," an Internet-based radio show aimed at Mac loyalists.

Product rumors continue to be published online, says King, often coming from independent contractors with no loyalty to Apple -- and no fear of repercussions if they're wrong. Erroneous information can hurt Apple's sales and stock price, though, notes King, who calls Think Secret's accuracy record ''spotty" at best.

''Websites like his have an arrogance the mainstream media don't have," says King. ''They command a lot of attention. But don't call them journalists, at least not on the basis of checking information prior to publication."

Writer and Mac analyst John Welch is even more critical of Ciarelli, calling his site ''a big ego trip" while contending that it blatantly solicits data from Apple employees, Ciarelli's denials notwithstanding.

''Nothing they publish is in the 'public interest,' " says Welch. ''Companies have a right to keep secrets, and it's not as if he found Apple was doing something wrong or dumping dioxin someplace."

The son of a newspaperman, Welch says he's sympathetic to First Amendment concerns, but such protections are not absolute.

''His life ambition is to be the coolest rumor site on the Web," says Welch, ''and now he's really sorry. Not for what he did, but for the fact that he got caught."

Ciarelli says he has not sought to become a cyber folk hero. . He arrived at Harvard last fall from New Woodstock, N.Y., a small town near Syracuse where his mother teaches piano and his father is director of technology for a local school district.

An only child, Ciarelli graduated from Cazenodia High School, where he ran track and cross-country, built sets for the school musical, and was an honor-roll student. He does not recall his SAT scores, or at least professes not to. ''That's ancient history," says Ciarelli, rolling his eyes. But he thinks he did better on the verbal portion than on the math part.

His family's first computer was a Mac Classic with a black-and-white screen, bought when Ciarelli was entering grade school. By age 10 or 11, his interest in computers had begun to deepen, he says. He started reading magazines like Macworld and visiting Mac-centric websites, of which there are scores.

It was less the underlying technology that fascinated him, according to Ciarelli, than the culture growing up around home computers and Apple specifically, whose users are famous for their passion and loyalty. Two of Ciarelli's favorite sources were Macworld columnist David Pogue (now a tech columnist for The New York Times) and MacAddict, a magazine aimed at young Mac-heads like him.

Ciarelli launched his website in 1998, when he was 13. He secured the thinksecret.com domain name a year later and took the nom ''dePlume" at the suggestion of his uncle, an attorney, who appreciated both a good pun and the privacy an alias could provide a young teenager venturing alone into cyberspace.

''I didn't see a niche to fill or a particular readership to attract," Ciarelli recalls. ''Initially it was just for fun -- not real serious, and not to make money."

The Internet was ''exploding at the time," he adds, so part of the thrill was simply the challenge of putting up the site. ''Money was never really a consideration," he avers.

According to an affidavit posted on his website, thinksecret.com ''provides articles and information solely on the topic of Apple computers and related subjects" including products that may be released, third-party designed hardware and software, product reviews, news articles, and company announcements. In addition, it offers an e-mail discussion list, hosted by MacEdition, for ''Macintosh rumors, news, and 'dirt' " about the company. Page hits have climbed as high as 5 million a month, averaging about half that number.

Ciarelli did sell an ad or two himself -- eventually -- but now pays someone to do the prospecting for him. He has also contracted out much of the writing over the past couple of years so he could devote more time to school and extracurricular activities. Still, he says, the site has never made much money -- barely enough to help pay tuition bills. He never dreamed the site would last this long, either. ''The Web is a very dynamic place," he notes. ''Sites come and go all the time."

Asked if he had any inkling until recently that Apple was looking over his shoulder, so to speak, Ciarelli shakes his head. ''Mine was really a small operation," he says, ''and not necessarily on anyone's radar screen," But those days are far behind him, obviously.

In his college application essays, Ciarelli wrote about how launching Think Secret has shaped his priorities. One consequence, he says today, is a growing interest in journalism and media issues and how the Web is democratizing the newsgathering business.

''It's lowered the barriers, and that's a good thing," says Ciarelli, who has chosen to major in social studies.

Harvard Crimson president Lauren Schuker says Ciarelli is ''shockingly professional for his age," standing out even in a newsroom full of ambitious and talented young reporters.

''It was very clear when he came in here that Nick had done a lot of reporting," says Schuker, whose brother happened to room with Ciarelli this past year. ''Harvard has an incredibly complex endowment structure, and he did a great job covering it."

Ciarelli is noncommittal about his summer plans, or maybe just sleepy after enduring the end-of-semester grind.

''I'll be working on the site but not much else," he says with a shrug. ''Maybe get in some running or play the piano. I don't really 'just hang,' though. It's not my thing."

Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.

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