Apple iPhone Raid Raises Legal Questions

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Was the Apple iPhone prototype lost or stolen, and were the police right to raid the home of the Gizmodo editor who received it? It depends on whether bloggers are journalists, says media expert Lorna Woods

The police raid on the home of Gizmodo editor Jason Chen, over his role in the leak of an Apple iPhone prototype handset that was apparently lost in a bar in California, has raised some legal question marks over the protection of journalist sources. We spoke to Professor Lorna Woods, a media expert at City University London to try and get some answers..

Police Seize Computers

Gizmodo’s parent company, Gawker Media, supposedly paid an unnamed source $5,000 (£3,270) for the device, allegedly misplaced in a German beer garden north of San Jose by an Apple software engineer Gray Powell, who was out celebrating his birthday.

Following a technical breakdown of the device, widely termed the “iPhone 4G” by the media, Gizmodo returned the device to Apple in response to a legal request.

Police then raided the home of Gizmodo editor Jason Chen, after Stephen Wagstaffe – a spokesperson for the San Mateo County District Attorney’s office – told Reuters that Apple had reported the device stolen: “The allegation was that there was a reasonable cause that a felony theft had occurred… This was the beginning of the investigation.”

Police apparently seized four computers and two servers. However the legality of the raid has been questioned, as Chen’s lawyers argue that, as a journalist, Chen is protected by California’s shield law, which states that journalists have the right to protect their unpublished material from examination.

Indeed, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, state lawyers are considering whether the raids in Fremont were legal. Meanwhile the examination of Chen’s computers and devices has been put on hold while authorities discuss whether the operation conflicted with California’s shield law.

Was The Raid Legal?

“This is difficult to say, as the case took place in the United States against a background of US laws,” Professor Woods said to eWEEK Europe, She feels that the underlying question is the one about whether bloggers are professional journalists or not.

“What can you say, is that there are general question marks about people who are using new media. Would they (the police) have done the same if the guy who had found the prototype which he sold Gizmodo, had instead sold it to a more traditional media source, like the New York Times?

“In the good old days, we could easily identify professional journalists and media, but now there is a blurring of professional journalists with amateur journalists. Websites however like Gizmodo are clearly professional journalists, and are not the same as the Joe Bloggs who found the phone.”

Professor Woods states that, even in Europe, it is recognised that in normal events journalists should not, for example, have to reveal their sources, as this is part of freedom of expression protected by Article 10 (European Convention on Human Rights).

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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