I guess there’s just no getting away from the fact that we tawdry human beings are merely small creatures with only a few inaccurate and incomplete channels through which we receive any and all information from outside ourselves. But while it may be only an accident of evolution that the senses we’re born with don’t appear to be adapted to feel things directly, it doesn’t lessen the fact that, ultimately, we are right to seek solutions to problems rather than sources of ultimate justification. Give someone a shred of information with which they can interact appropriately and reality will respond with evidence. Open accessibility and the whole mechanism of knowledge acquisition should need no authorization or initiation. You should only need to look for it in the right way. And when it comes to governments, or even large, powerful corporations trying to interfere with this process or dictate what that ‘right’ way might be, perhaps we all need to start getting very worried.
Freedom of the press, and even the concept of free speech in this country, inhabits a slightly weird and twisted landscape. Unlike the US, where these rights are enshrined in written law, in the UK the ‘constitution’ that politicians like to refer to doesn’t really exist in written form. So, despite the usual sanguine misconceptions of the public, just how free our speech and press really are tends to be a movable feast.
However, among those who believe in a free press, there is a healthy fear of the devastating effect that compelled disclosure could have on what we like to refer to as the free flow of information – otherwise known as the lifeblood of a functioning democracy. For example, in the US the judiciary has, in theory, understood the vital connection between the confidentiality of sources and freedom of the press by establishing a privilege under the First Amendment. In other words, journalists of all stripes do, and should be able to, rely on the ability to protect sources and unpublished information to acquire information and communicate it to the public.
Unfortunately, high-moralled idealistic theory doesn’t always work in pig-ignorant practice. And when good theory is reinterpreted by a fear-twisted judicial system with the wisdom of a bag of hammers, freedom, as Kris Kristofferson put it, is just another word for nothing left to lose.
You see, as it happens, back in December, those nice people at Apple, who have often encouraged us to ‘think different’, filed a lawsuit in Santa Clara county against unnamed individuals who allegedly leaked information about new Apple products to several online news sites, including AppleInsider and PowerPage. Apple was seeking information from these news sites regarding the identities of the sites’ sources, and even subpoenaed Nfox.com, the email service provider for PowerPage, for email messages that might help it identify the confidential source – probably somewhere within the bowels of Apple itself.
Apple’s reasoning here was that online sites and blogs don’t actually have the same legal rights to protect their sources as ‘real’ journalists… whatever they are. Appallingly, despite the various freedoms enshrined in US law, and the intervention of various civil liberties groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), Apple has managed to win the first round of these legal proceedings in a preliminary ruling from a California court.
Where does it say that non-mainstream media writers shouldn’t have the same rights as print or broadcast journalists to keep their sources anonymous? If this decision holds and becomes a precedent, does this mean 24’s Jack Bauer will be kicking down the doors of random media bloggers every time they have another leak inside the Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU)? Does Steve Jobs think this is some clever blag to appease the establishment and nanny state powers that be so that at some future date, he too, like the evil Bill Gates, will be graced with a nearly knighthood but still not be able to call himself ‘Sir Steve’? If Apple’s hollow victory is allowed to stand and Apple news sites are forced to disclose the confidences gained by their reporters, most potential confidential sources will be deterred from providing information to the online media. And if this precedent is applied to a wider range of sources, all of us could lose a vital outlet for news and analysis.
When Apple used to think I was relatively important and not too old to matter very much, I used to get invited to loads of confidential briefings for new products and developments. In every case, I was required to sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement), and, in the spirit of fair play, I always adhered to it. However, if someone within or without Apple chose to tell me something, for whatever reason, and I had not been asked to sign an NDA, I usually treated it as fair copy and I never revealed from whom or how I received the information.
If Apple wants to get all CTU about leaks, it should sort it out internally and try to understand why someone within its own organization decides to leak information. Find the message if it’s really that important – but don’t try to kill the messenger or expect them to help with the witch hunt. As the EFF has pointed out, online journalism, whether in the form of blogs, email newsletters or Web sites, is a growing part of our national and international discourse. Blogs, like any media, gain in importance and readership by the content and currency of their news, not their affiliations with the media of old or by sucking up to powerful governments or corporations. Indeed, we’ve seen a plethora of cases where blogs broke important news first, and traditional media followed.
There are enough anti-terrorist, anti-religious hatred, anti-smoking, anti-going-to-the-toilet-unaccompanied laws being passed worldwide on an almost daily basis already. We don’t need another law forcing journalists from any media to reveal their sources. Well, at least not if we want any semblance of truth to ever see the light of day.
As another early Illuminati, James Madison observed, “a popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce or tragedy or perhaps both”. I think we’ve already had more than our fair share of farce and tragedy. Do we really need any more? MW