Today is the day Apple will unveil its long-awaited tablet device, destined to be the most culture-altering advancement since, well, the Segway or something. Apple’s excited about it, anyway, and as is usual for that company, it has fiercely guarded against premature leaks regarding its newest innovation. In the process, it threatened to sue the proudly sleazy website “Gawker,” which had one of its misbegotten offspring, the Silicon Valley gossip site “Valleywag,” announce the “Apple Tablet Scavenger Hunt,” which dangled cash prizes for anyone who would uncover and leak tablet information to the website before January 27. Saying said it had “had enough of trying to follow all the speculation,” Valleywag published a bounty list describing what it would pay for and how much, ranging from $10,000 for photos to $100,000 for anyone who could put the tablet in its editors hands.
Apple’s lawyers responded with a cease and desist letter, saying that the scavenger hunt scheme violated trade-secret law and induced others to breach their confidentiality agreements with the company. Naturally, Gawker cried “First Amendment!”
It appears that the lawsuit won’t go forward, since the tablet announcement date is here; a pity, because a lawsuit couldn’t happen to a more deserving operation, and because a court decision would have clarified an interesting issue. We all know the media happily acts as information-launderers, accepting documents and secrets from lawyers, government officials and corporate whistleblowers who could be fired, disciplined, sued or prosecuted for leaking them, and publishing the illicitly acquired information with self-righteous pride, not to mention confidence, since the Constitution says the press can print anything. The issue is this: if the media can publish such leaks, can it also induce them directly with cash?
Slate, in an excellent piece this month by Ben Sheffner, researched the legal issues and concluded that Apple would have a very strong case. Ethically, the conclusion even clearer. Since it is virtually always wrong to breach a duty of confidentiality (the exceptions are when the duty to keep a secret yields to the greater duty to prevent illegal acts, physical harm or other damage to people or property on a grand scale), it is also wrong to try to induce such breaches. The news media violates this principle all the time, with reporters egging-on wavering potential leakers with promises of anonymity and exhortations to support the fictional “public’s right to know.” It’s wrong, but institutionalized into what the journalistic profession calls its ethics, and courts have been as reluctant to stop the practice as dewy-eyed commentators have been loathe to condemn it.
Valleywag’s stunt, however, strips away any illusion of legitimate justification. The site just wanted a scoop, that’s all; its motivations were as selfish and juvenile as the Matthew Broderick character in “War Games,” who hacks into a Pentagon database because he wants to play the cool computer games on it. Valleywag was offering to pay money for theft, just so it could know something before everyone else. It was trying to corrupt Apple employees and contractors who had signed confidentiality agreements for compensation, not caring about the harm the leaks might do to the company. This was unequivocally unethical and wrong.
The obvious related question is: how much more unethical is Gawker’s stunt than what legitimate and respected investigative reporters do routinely with straight-forward, cash-less persuasion?
The answer is: not much.