Apple's decision to sue Think Secret has raised ire within the Mac community, since it was revealed the man behind the site was just 19-years old.

An online petition has attracted over 600 signatures so far.

The petition asks Apple to find another way to settle its differences with the 19-year old, arguing that it's a 'David and Goliath' struggle.

The defendant in the case has confirmed he cannot afford to pay market rates for legal representation and is looking for a lawyer to represent him. He claims he had a right to publish information about Apple under First Amendment free speech rights.

Think Secret - unmasked

The identity of Think Secret's publisher was only revealed last week. He is 19-year old Harvard student, Nicholas Ciarelli. A long-time Mac nut, Ciarelli launched the site when he was 13-years old.

In the prelude to Macworld Expo San Francisco this month, the Mac rumour site reported that Apple would announce a new low-cost 'headless' iMac (the Mac mini) and revealed early reports of Apple's iWork suite.

Apple filed suit against the site publisher (then unknown) and its sources in the Californian courts in January.

As it ramps up its competitive plans, it's critical to Apple that it plugs the leaks, in order to retain market advantage.

Apple needs protection

Apple senior vice president of worldwide product marketing Phil Schiller told the Associated Press: "Innovation is what Apple is all about, and we want to continue to innovate and surprise and delight people with great products, so we have a right to protect our innovation and secrecy."

"Unauthorized disclosures diminish the interest of both the mainstream and trade media in the launch of a new product," it told Cnet

Apple also stressed that the company: "Does not seek to discourage communication protected by the free-speech guarantees of the United States".

Demand for sources raises fears

Apple does however want Think Secret to reveal its sources for the stories it published.

Ciarelli has countered that he is: "Confident Think Secret's reporting is consistent with the right and privileges granted by the First Amendment. The complaint is being reviewed, and Think Secret defers further comment until it has been analyzed."

Apple has filed similar cases against Apple Insider and PowerPage as it attempts to silence what it sees as the more extreme edges of the Mac Web - but it's actions concern some media watchers.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, which is representing the other two sites (but not Think Secret), believes the cases may limit the rights of journalists. The campaign group argues that the anonymity of bloggers' sources is protected by the same laws that protect sources providing information to journalists.

"Bloggers break the news, just like journalists do. They must be able to promise confidentiality in order to maintain the free flow of information," said EFF staff attorney Kurt Opsahl.

"Without legal protection, informants will refuse to talk to reporters, diminishing the power of the open press that is the cornerstone of a free society."

Petitioners fear media silence

These comments are echoed by Mac users who have signed the petition to save Think Secret's publisher.

Many signatories note that like many Mac Web sites, Think Secret serves to galvanise the Mac community, and helps Apple maintain market momentum. "He helped Apple's business by creating a massive buzz", one writes.

While most petition signatories agree Apple has a right to protect itself, many question the wisdom of taking Ciarelli through a legal process he cannot afford, and are concerned at the precedent it may set for reporting news across all topics in future.

One petitioner wrote: "I do not want journalism to be defined as anyone working for a major media company, as the danger there is complete control by corporate media of the information flow."