The decision by a judge to tentatively rule that three blogs should reveal the source of leaked information about an unreleased Apple product has sparked a debate about whether bloggers should be protected by the same laws as journalists.

In court papers Apple suggests that the people who run the sites – PowerPage, Apple Insider, and Think Secret, aren't "legitimate members of the press" and therefore it has the right to subpoena information that will reveal which Apple employees violated their confidentiality agreements.

Normally journalists would be protected under the First Amendment and therefore don't have to reveal their sources.

Civil rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which represents two of the three sites under fire, says being able to ensure sources' confidentiality is critical to any journalist's ability to acquire information, writes BusinessWeek.

EFF attorney Kevin Bankston told BusinessWeek: "Web diarists, aka bloggers, are people who gather news, and they do so with the intent to disseminate that news to the public. The only distinction to be made between these people and professional journalists at The New York Times is that they're online only."

Blogging off

The assumption is that even someone who is a journalist by day cannot claim the rights of a journalist for his blog. The problem may be that blogs have gained a reputation for inaccuracy. Often proving to be no more than swirling rumour mills. Not all bloggers have the benefit of having studied journalism and media law.

In traditional media, the same legal rights that allow a journalist to protect sources also hold such writers accountable to report the truth. If journalists stray from what's true, they can be charged with libel, writes BusinessWeek.

Companies are starting to show some concern about their employee blogs, although as yet few have created guidelines as to what employees are permitted to write.

A former Google employee Mark Jen lost his job after he speculated over his employer's finances in his blog.

Web designer Heather Armstrong also lost her job over her blog. She told Associated Press: "There needs to be a dialogue going on between employers and employees. There's this power of personal publishing, and there needs to be rules about what you can or cannot say about the workplace."

Freedom of speech

Annalee Newitz, a policy analyst at the civil liberties group Electronic Frontier Foundation, told AP: "Employees often don't realize the First Amendment doesn't protect their job."

The First Amendment only restricts government control of speech. So private employers are free to fire at will in most states, as long as it's not discriminatory or in retaliation for whistle-blowing or union organizing, experts say.

Christopher Cobey, an employment lawyer at the Littler Mendelson law firm's Silicon Valley office, said publicity over recent blog-related firings has prompted increased inquiries from companies about developing policies, writes AP.

However, Mark Dichter, chairman of labour and employment at the law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius, said policies can tie the hands of employers. "It requires you to anticipate and draw lines. And once you set policies then you get into litigation into which side of the line it fell," he said.

Currently, 27 per cent of online US adults read blogs, and 7 per cent pen them, according to The Pew Internet and American Life Project.