Picture this: you’re sitting at your computer, typing about the day’s news and events. You own a popular blog, let’s say, and you have quite a few subscribers. You’re in the process of adding your commentary to the day’s news and editorial events when there’s a loud knock at your door.
“Police!” a voice shouts. “Search warrant!”
Before you can even rise from your chair, a portable battering ram has hammered your front door aside and left the molding in splinters on your carpet. Balaclava-wearing latter-day ninja in ballistic vests emblazoned with law-enforcement tags are pouring into your home, pointing assault rifles in your face and demanding that you get on the floor, get on the floor. …
As plastic zip-tie cuffs cut into the flesh of your wrists, you are forced to watch helplessly as black-clad law-enforcement ninja paw through your possessions, emptying your drawers, seizing your computers and laughing as they comb through your personal effects.
While he wasn’t home when it happened, Gizmodo’s Jason Chen surely knows what it feels like to have his home raided and his property seized. A tech blogger for the popular Gawker Media gadget site, Chen published what has been described as the most significant “tech scoop” in years: Gizmodo got its hands on a lost iPhone prototype. They evidently paid several thousand dollars to get it, then took it apart and published their findings. The information they published is apparently of value to Apple’s competitors. The legal issues in the case are significant: if the phone is considered stolen rather than lost, Gizmodo is potentially in trouble for buying it. But if blogger Jason Chen can, in fact, be considered a “journalist,” he can enjoy the protection of laws shielding journalists from prosecution for doing their jobs.
Gizmodo did itself no favors by taunting Apple over Apple’s written request for the return of its lost (or stolen) property. The tone of the piece is smug and childish. It’s not hard to picture some Dark Lord of the Sith at Apple silently, furiously sitting back in his high-backed chair far above the yard where technicians are busily scurrying over the framework of the soon-to-be-completed iDeath-Star, steepling his black-gloved fingers, and using the Dark Side of the Force to throw a switch across the room marked, “Unleash the Hounds and Lawyers.”
All of this grief over a wireless-phone prototype may seem like much ado about nothing, but this is no ordinary technology company we’re talking about. This is the Great and Powerful Apple. Steve Jobs of Apple isn’t just the man behind the curtain; the Wizard is also the Wicked Witch, and he’ll send his flying monkeys to find you if you displease him. As just one example, if you “jailbreak” your iPhone (a hacker’s term for disabling certain Apple restrictions on the device and its applications), Apple will try to deactivate the phone. Most companies don’t care what you do with your property once you purchase your smartphone from them – but in Apple’s view, you don’t buy something from Steve Jobs’ company so much as you rent it with their gracious permission.
Apple is so draconian in the enforcement of its security, in fact, that people have killed themselves over it. Last year, an employee of a Chinese electronics manufacturer, Foxconn, lost an iPhone prototype. Foxconn employees, fearful of Apple’s wrath and the loss of its business, searched the man’s home without legal authorization. They also subjected him to questioning so intense that it was, in fact, more like torture. Finally, when he could take it no more, he leapt to his death from the window of his own apartment.
Nobody is likely to die over this, fortunately, but the Jason Chen case does not by any means represent the first time Apple has gone to great lengths to punish someone who has published inside information about their products (even if they claim they had nothing to do with the raid on Jason Chen’s home). The company filed suit in late 2005 against blogger Jason O’Grady and attempted to force his Internet service provider to shut down his website and e-mail. In other words, the company tried to destroy a man’s livelihood by shutting down his source of employment … because he displeased them.
Especially given the call to action we offered in last week’s Technocracy, the most significant implication of the case is neither Apple’s corporate policies nor Gizmodo’s “checkbook journalism.” It is instead Jason Chen’s status as blogger, or journalist, or both. Paul Ohm, associate professor of law and telecommunications at the University of Colorado Law School, wrote yesterday that he is “deeply concerned about overbreadth as the police begin to search through these terabytes of information.”
His point is that in the modern age, seizing a blogger’s computers – regardless of whether that blogger ultimately is found to be protected by laws protecting journalists – gives the police access to “thousands of documents belonging to a journalist/blogger that are utterly irrelevant to their investigation.” When you consider the size of the average hard drive and the years of information it may contain, searching Chen’s machines for evidence of a single crime means the police are pawing through years of his life, his online activities, his writing, and his personal and leisure activities.
Dedication to the ideals of liberty requires that we be ever vigilant to new threats to our civil rights as they evolve. This evolution is often the result of technological innovation. As technology continues to empower ever-larger numbers of private citizens, effectively deputizing huge swaths of our society as members of the digital “press,” the line between private citizen and officially sanctioned “journalist” will continue to pixelate. How we choose to deal with that as a free people, and whether we buckle to the pressures of stern corporate forces who respect neither freedom of speech nor your property rights in a free market, will determine the path we walk as a technologically interconnected people.