A state appeals court on Friday rejected Apple Computer Inc.'s bid to identify the sources of leaked product information that appeared on Web sites, ruling that online reporters and bloggers are entitled to the same protections as traditional journalists.
"In no relevant respect do they appear to differ from a reporter or editor for a traditional business-oriented periodical who solicits or otherwise comes into possession of confidential internal information about a company," Justice Conrad Rushing of the 6th District Court of Appeal wrote in a unanimous 69-page ruling.
"We decline the implicit invitation to embroil ourselves in questions of what constitutes 'legitimate journalism," he wrote. "The shield law is intended to protect the gathering and dissemination of news, and that is what petitioners did here."
The online journalists are thus entitled to the protections provided under California's shield law as well as the privacy protections for e-mails allowed under federal law, the court ruled.
Two years ago, Apple went to court seeking to identify the culprits behind the leak of confidential information about an unreleased product code-named as "Asteroid" to online media outlets.
Apple contended it was entitled to identify the sources — presumed in this case to be company employees — because the leak constituted a violation of trade secrets. The Cupertino, Calif.-based company subpoenaed the Internet service providers of three online journalists to turn over e-mail records aiming to uncover the possible sources.
A lower court last year ruled in Apple's favor, but the Electronic Frontier Foundation, whose attorneys represent the online journalists of AppleInsider.com, PowerPage.org and MacNN.com appealed.
The appeals court based in San Jose sided with the civil liberties organization, overturning the lower court's decision. The three-member appellate panel agreed not only with the group's constitutional arguments but also the contention that Apple failed to exhaust other investigative options to root out the source before going to court and issuing subpoenas.
An Apple spokesman did not immediately return phone calls for comment.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation called the ruling "a huge win."
"Today's decision is a victory for the rights of journalists, whether online or offline, and for the public at large," said the group's staff attorney Kurt Opsahl, who argued the case before the appeals court last month.