Apple has stayed legal attempts to get information about unnamed individuals who leaked trade secrets through Mac rumour sites.

The company has agreed to stay subpoenas seeking information about these individuals, according to a spokesman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) - but the move isn't a permanent end to the litigation.

Apple is holding back while it waits for the Superior Court of Santa Clara County and its hearing on the EFF's request for a protective order for its clients. Apple Insider and PowerPage. This hearing may occur in early March, according to eWeek's Daniel Drew Turner.

EFF is also working as co-counsel for Monish Bhatia, publisher of MacNN, this report reveals.

Apple wants to know who has been leaking its product information to these sites, and as part of its attempt to get this information issued a legal request to PowerPage's ISP requesting all electronic communication records containing the products code-name, "asteroid".

The ISP did this, and the EFF legal team contends that the ISPs response itself violated the terms of the US Stored Communications Act.

Undermining the free press

EFF says both California and the US Constitution's protect "a reporter's sources and unpublished information regardless of location." Apple can't be allowed to subvert this body of law "simply by seeking a journalist's records from a third-party entrusted with custody of them."

EFF policy analyst Annalee Newitz describes Apple's actions as an attempt to, "do an end run around the shield laws" that protect journalists, who can only be forced to divulge sources if a company has tried "all other means" to get such information, which Newitz alleges Apple hasn't.

EFF staff attorney Kurt Opsahl describes Apple's action as: "Undermining a fundamental, First Amendment right that protects all reporters. If the court lets Apple get away with this, and exposes the confidences gained by these reporters, potential confidential sources will be deterred from providing information to the media, and the public will lose a vital outlet for independent news, analysis, and commentary."

However, should the EFF win a protective order for its clients Apple's attempt to suppress the Mac rumour sites will be stymied, at least for a while.

Journalism under fire

Writing in his blog, Opsahl observed: "As the courts have confirmed, what makes journalism journalism is not the format but the content. Where news is gathered for dissemination to the public, it is journalism - regardless of whether it is printed on paper or distributed through the Internet."

Apple's heavyweight legal tactics haven't gone unnoticed. A petition in support of another rumour site that's under fire, Think Secret, has attracted 5,139 signatures. The signatories implore Apple, "not to value its corporate interest above the first amendment rights of journalists to report information."

Journalists fight back

Apple's winning few friends in this fight. Writing last week, Computerworld warned: "Apple, one of the most famously secretive companies in the technology business, frames this case and several like it as little more than attempts to protect massively valuable trade secrets.

"The value strikes me as questionable, and the larger reality is an Apple-aimed dagger at one of the foundations of free speech: a vibrant press.

"A culture of secrecy, enshrined in law, would make it even harder for companies to know what's going on, in a time when transparency should be ascendant."

UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh told Village Voice: "I think that inherently the speech of individuals is valuable as well as the speech of institutions", sharing his belief that such freedoms should be extended to small Web sites and blogs.