Nicholas M. Ciarelli was not even old enough to shave when he started getting under Apple Computer Inc.'s skin.
As a 13-year-old middle-schooler, the New Woodstock, N.Y., native built a Web site in 1998 and began publishing insider news and rumors about Apple, using the alias Nick dePlume.
Three years later, ThinkSecret.com was first to report that the company would debut a G4 version of the PowerBook laptop series. The product launched soon thereafter, along with ThinkSecret's reputation among Apple's legendarily zealous fans, generating millions of page views per month.
But after a series of letters warning the Web site to stop publishing proprietary information, Apple decided enough was enough. When Ciarelli scored yet another scoop in late December, by predicting the arrival of a new software package and a sub-$500 computer rolled out at this week's MacWorld Conference and Expo in San Francisco, the computer maker filed a lawsuit accusing him of illegally misappropriating trade secrets.
Ciarelli, now a 19-year-old Harvard University freshman, is part of a legion of Internet news gatherers whose influence is expanding as concern grows in some quarters about their accountability and journalistic standards. With the easy anonymity offered by online posting of tips and digital photographs, Web sites run by product buffs have caused headaches, and generated valuable buzz, for companies in many industries -- including automobile and cell phone manufacturers -- by leaking product information.
Ciarelli said he originally chose a pseudonym because he doubted many people would take a teenager seriously. He was publicly unmasked as ThinkSecret's editor in chief by the Harvard Crimson newspaper, which reported on the lawsuit this week.
"I talk to sources, follow up on leads and get details confirmed," said Ciarelli, a somewhat atypical technology savant who knows little about computer programming. "I believe that like other reporters I am protected by the First Amendment."
Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., sees things differently: "Defendants' knowing misappropriation and disclosure of Apple's trade secrets constitutes a violation of California law and has caused irreparable harm to Apple," states its legal complaint, which was filed in California's Santa Clara County Superior Court.
A spokesman for the company, whose fortunes have been boosted this year by sales of its iPod digital music player, declined to comment on the case beyond a written statement. "Apple's DNA is innovation, and the protection of our trade secrets is crucial to our success," the company said in the statement.
Close followers of the company said Apple is unique among computer makers for the slew of fan Web sites that track its every move and compete for scoops. Though opinions of their quality varied -- some reports are wildly off-base -- many industry insiders monitor the sites regularly.
A reputation for secrecy
In part, that's because Apple chief executive Steve Jobs has a reputation for secrecy. The company's complaint against ThinkSecret.com is part of a larger legal assault on breaches of confidentiality. It's doubtful Apple knew it was targeting a teenager. The complaint names only dePlume and states that his "true name and identity" cannot be confirmed, though in earlier correspondence it referred to Ciarelli as the site's editor in chief.
The suit alleges that ThinkSecret.com induced tipsters to break non-disclosure agreements .
"This case raises legal issues and marketing issues for these companies because the providers of this information are their fans, people they don't want to antagonize, even though they may not want these things published right away," said Andrew Beckerman-Rodau, who runs the intellectual property program at Boston's Suffolk University Law School.
But while lawsuits against online publications are rare, he said, the Uniform Trade Secrets Act, versions of which have been adopted by about 45 states, including California, prevents third parties from exposing information knowingly obtained from sources bound by confidentiality agreements.
"Just because you don't have a relationship with the company doesn't necessarily immunize you, if you publish what you reasonably should have known was a trade secret," Beckerman-Rodau said. "The First Amendment has been asserted more and more against intellectual property rights, but it's not faring well. Most courts haven't accepted it."
Ciarelli said he became an Apple enthusiast when his parents, a school administrator and a music teacher, brought home a Macintosh Classic more than a decade ago. He owns a PowerMac G5 desktop computer and a PowerMac G4 laptop.
"Sites like mine are good for Apple because they generate interest in its products," he said in an interview on the Harvard campus. "At this point I really don't think I am doing anything wrong."
He said that he has yet to retain a lawyer, and that he has 30 days to respond to Apple's complaint, which calls for damages and the forfeiture of "gains, profits, and advantages" and asks for a jury trial.
The company he established when the site was launched, the dePlume Organization LLC, is registered in New York. It lacks the money to defend a case against a major corporation, he said.
So far, the front page story in the Crimson has earned him little fame. "It's reading week," he said, referring to the study period before final exams. "People are too busy sleeping and studying for exams."
The response has been more forthcoming on dozens of Apple and technology-related Internet sites, where discussion of the case has raged for days.
"I fear this is just an attempt by a big business to spread fear and intimidate Web sites," said a correspondent on O'Grady's PowerPage.
ThinkSecret.com, which is a takeoff on Apple's former marketing slogan "Think Different," has a stripped down, mostly text-based design; it features a number of advertisements placed by technology companies.
The ads "pay for the Web hosting and have helped with a little of my tuition," he said.
A visitor who clicks on a box labeled "Got Dirt?" is taken to an e-mail form, below a note that reads in part, "Think Secret appreciates your news tips and insider information." There is also a phone number listed for tips.
Tim Bajarin, president of the Silicon Valley high-tech research and consulting firm Creative Strategies, said the real target of the suit is whoever has been breaking non-disclosure agreements by leaking information.
"Apple is after the source," Bajarin said.
On that subject, Ciarelli is circumspect, though he denies speculation that a friend or family member works for Apple.
"I employ the same legal techniques as other journalists," he said.