The Efficient Mac User

Think Bull: Why the Shuttering of Think Secret Is No Big Deal

- 2008.01.04 - Tip Jar

Follow Ed Eubanks Jr on Twitter.

Over the past few weeks, those who pay attention to Apple and Mac news (especially rumors and speculation regarding upcoming announcements) will have learned of Apple's settlement with the Think Secret website and its owner, Nick Ciarelli. Lots of kerfuffle has been made about whether this is good or bad for Apple, the press, and the Apple fan community - most have concluded that it is generally bad.

I'm here today to proclaim that it is actually a very good thing - and also that it's no big deal. After watching the train wreck of opinions (probably best typified in the caricature that was analyst Rob Enderle's big gaffe, followed by his attempt to explain himself and save face), I can hold my tongue no longer! Please - stop the madness!

Here are five reasons why we can, and should, comfortably move on from this nonevent:

Apple Wins

Think Secret was largely the fruit of Mr. Ciarelli's use of an inside contact (or multiple contacts) within Apple. As Apple is generally one of the most secretive tech companies around, it is a safe bet - if not a guaranteed sure-thing - that any and all informants were in violation of a legally binding Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA). Thus, Apple was able, through this settlement, to silence (for now) one or more lawbreakers in their company, a big win.

Apple Loses

Those who believe that this settlement is a purely self-serving move by Apple, with no benefit beyond 1 Infinite Loop, are mistaken on two counts. To begin with, Apple did not learn the names of the sources through this settlement, so the lawbreakers are silenced for now, but they cannot yet receive what is really due them: to be fired and sued for unlawful disclosure.

Second, however, is the unquantifiable factor that Apple gains from rumors and speculation in the buzz surrounding product releases. No doubt Apple felt about this in a similar way that they did when they spoke out against unlocking and "jailbreaking" iPhones: They needed to honor their legal commitments, but the hype and sales that result from these possibilities hurts also.

Nick Ciarelli Wins

Mr. Ciarelli, a student at Harvard University, has gone on record stating that he is very satisfied with the settlement. Speculation about the details of the settlement has nearly reached the level of speculation about a subcompact Mac notebook, but one thing is certain: Mr. Ciarelli is officially off the hook for any shady practices he may have engaged in while publishing the site, while not having to reveal his sources.

And remember: It was not Apple's decision alone to close down Think Secret; the very nature of a settlement is where both parties reach an agreement. Mr. Ciarelli chose to shutter the website, just as some journalists have chosen to reveal their sources, and others have retracted stories. It was his decision too.

Journalism Is Not at Stake

The fact that Ciarelli was able to protect his sources is a boon for journalism, where the protection of anonymity for sources has long been a herald of First Amendment rights. Yet much has been made of the fact that the site was shut down, and this is perceived as a threat to journalism. It's not: Spreading rumors is not journalism.

Journalism is about spreading facts - specifically, legally obtained facts. If Mr. Ciarelli was simply a purveyor of rumors, no claim of threat exists, as he was not a journalist. If, however, he was publishing facts that were obtained illegally (through lawbreaking insiders), he was also not engaging in ethical journalism. Taking journalism classes and writing for the school newspaper does not define Mr. Ciarelli as a journalist, nor does it automatically categorize all writing that he publishes as a journalistic endeavor.

Not all blogs are journalistic, even if the fuzzy and gray boundaries of journalism have expanded to include some. Journalists of the world: Get over it. You cannot cite Think Secret as a precedent-setting publication that will allow you to use illegally obtained information and not be prosecuted for breaking the law.

Apple Is Not a Public Entity

Some of the most irresponsible "journalism" I've seen in the coverage of this nonevent is the comparison of Think Secret to those who would publish governmental secrets that should be a matter of public record. This is wrong on several levels.

To begin with, Apple is a publicly traded company, not a publicly owned company or public service. I don't have a right to information about Apple in the same way that the Freedom of Information Act allows me access to information about governmental documents. Stock holders have a right to the information that their stock prospectuses stipulate; non-shareholders have no right to any information not required to be made public by the Securities Exchange Commission. This does not include corporate secrets.

Furthermore, why do we assume that anything governmental should be public, just because the government is a public service? Personally, I like the fact that the names of undercover agents, etc. are kept secret; I'm certain that there are reams of information that is equally justifiable in its secrecy. Please, discard this unhelpful equivocation.

Let's move on. This is not the end of speculation, rumor, or even leaked facts about Apple. And it is certainly not the end of journalism. LEM

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