10 Things You Should Know about the Gizmodo iPhone 4G Probe
News Analysis: Gizmodo is currently embroiled in a rapidly evolving legal probe involving Apple, California police, as well as media rights and ethics advocates over the blog site’s acquisition and examination of a reputed iPhone 4G prototype apparently lost by an Apple employee in a bar in Redwood City, Calif. But Gizmodo is loudly defending its innocence and its journalistic ethics in the face of what could become a painful and expensive legal contest.
Technology blog Gizmodo is in a difficult position. The site’s editor, Jason Chen, recently had his home searched and electronics equipment seized to see if he committed a crime at any point over the past few weeks when he paid $5,000 for a lost iPhone 4G.
Chen says he’s innocent and Gizmodo’s legal counsel has publicly said that Chen was acting well within journalistic standards. The legal counsel says that he cannot be charged with any crime for acquiring the iPhone 4G.
But determining exactly what happened and whether laws or journalistic ethics were violated might be more difficult that it seems on face value. Gizmodo has been forthright about its contention that it acted within its rights as a news service in sharing information about the Apple iPhone prototype with the public. If its account is true, it appears that Gizmodo tried to perform journalistic due diligence before it started the process of acquiring the iPhone 4G and posting details about the device on its site.
But that doesn’t mean that Gizmodo was necessarily entirely right in this scenario. It also doesn’t mean that law enforcement has made the right moves. It seems that there is adequate blame to go around. And it’s incumbent upon us as the spectators to be as informed as possible before we pass judgment.
So, let’s take a look at 10 things to know about Gizmodo’s iPhone 4G saga.
- An Apple employee lost it
Although some have said that Apple secretly leaked the iPhone 4G to Gizmodo, it reportedly didn’t happen that way. An Apple employee lost the iPhone 4G in a bar, which was eventually recovered by another patron. After unsuccessful attempts at getting the iPhone back into Apple’s hands, the person offered it up to Gizmodo. According to Gizmodo, the person held onto the iPhone for weeks before giving it to the tech blog. That’s an important factor in all of this. Considering the person tried hard to give the device back to Apple, some fault might need to be placed on the hardware company for not performing its own due diligence.
- Gizmodo paid $5,000 for it
Gizmodo reported recently that it paid $5,000 for the lost iPhone. That figure might not mean much to some, but under California law, that puts the transaction into felony territory. That’s not a good thing. But it also speaks to whether or not Gizmodo should have paid for the product and if it acted ethically by doing so. It’s difficult to say what any publication or editor would do in a similar situation, but a spectator’s individual ethics must come into play when deciding where the fault should be placed.
- Apple had ample time to recover it
As mentioned above, Apple had about three weeks to find and retrieve the lost iPhone, according to Gizmodo. The tech blog said that the person who recovered the iPhone from the bar attempted to contact the company to no avail. Rather than hold on to it, he decided to sell it off for a handsome sum. It makes sense. But it also begs the question of whether or not Apple truly cares. Steve Jobs has a proven track record of being secretive and unbending in his distaste for those who leak company secrets. If he was really that upset about what was lost, wouldn’t he have attempted to more proactively seek it out? One would think so.
- There’s still no telling if it’s really the iPhone 4G
Try as it might to say that the phone it found is in fact the iPhone 4G, Gizmodo, like the rest of us, cannot confirm it. Apple has yet to say whether or not the lost device was actually the new version of the iPhone and it’s entirely possible that the device is one of many prototypes the company is working on. As appealing as it might be to seemingly look at the next version of the iPhone that Apple doesn’t want us to see, there’s no way to know if it’s what we’ll be using in the coming months. Gizmodo recovered an iPhone prototype, but not necessarily the iPhone 4G.
- Apple finally got it back
After the news broke that Gizmodo had acquired the iPhone and it discussed its features, Apple’s legal counsel sent a memo to Gizmodo requesting the device back. The tech blog used that request as proof that it was in fact an authentic Apple product. Upon receiving the iPhone, Apple has said nothing about the device and has yet to confirm it was really the iPhone 4G. Nonetheless, the iPhone is back in Apple’s hands and we won’t learn anymore about it until Apple finally confirms its existence.
- Chen could be charged with a felony
Until Apple recovered the iPhone, it was all fun and games for Gizmodo and those that wanted to learn more about the new iPhone. But it quickly turned serious when reports started surfacing claiming Chen could be charged with a felony because of the way he acquired the device. Since then, his home has been searched and computers and other electronics have been seized by local police in an attempt to determine if a crime was actually committed. For his part, Chen says he is innocent. But whether or not the district attorney will agree remains to be seen.
- He could also be covered under media shield laws
Chen might have a valid defense if he is in fact, charged with a crime. Gizmodo’s chief legal counsel sent a letter to local police, which was subsequently posted on the tech blog, saying that Chen is a journalist and thus, under California (and Federal) law, a warrant cannot be issued to search his home and seize property that could have been used for the purposes of a news story. Court decisions in the past provide Gizmodo and Chen with the precedent they need to show that online journalists are, in fact, covered under the same protections as traditional journalists. Assuming the district attorney interprets the laws the same way Gizmodo’s legal counsel does, Chen might not be charged with a crime.
- Apple hasn’t chimed in
As the drama continues at Gizmodo, Cupertino has been silent. Steve Jobs, his executives, and even his PR team have been mum on whether or not they have any opinion about what’s happening to Chen or Gizmodo. It’s rather typical from Apple. The company has imposed its will by acquiring the lost iPhone and now that its work is done, it has decided to say nothing about the issues Gizmodo is facing. Depending on where the law-enforcement effort goes, though, at least one Apple employee—the man who lost the iPhone—might need to chime in.
- Gizmodo maintains its journalistic standards
Some journalists have contended that Chen’s decision to buy the iPhone for $5,000 breaks journalistic ethics and standards that have been in place for years. They contend that from an ethical perspective, Chen shouldn’t have paid for the story and instead should have reported on the news that the iPhone was lost. Gizmodo and Chen don’t agree. They contend that they were doing what they were supposed to do: inform the public on Apple’s upcoming products. Either side of the debate can make a valid argument, but it’s tough to say which is right.
- It’ll probably blow over
In the end, the chances of Chen being charged with a crime and Apple taking issue with Gizmodo seem relatively slight. Gizmodo could potentially have its trump card, thanks to journalistic protection. And Apple, realizing that Gizmodo was only doing its job, likely won’t press the issue more than it already has. In a couple weeks, Gizmodo’s ordeal with the iPhone 4G will blow over and the story will be just another interesting saga to discuss in end-of-the-year roundups. But it’s certainly fun to watch while it lasts.
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