Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

All You Need to Know About Gizmodo, the iPhone and the Cops

Who knew Act II of the Gizmodo-iPhone story would be as exciting as last week’s news?

But while this saga is almost designed for bloggy hyperbole — Cops! Busting down doors! Confiscating iPads! — the legal issue here is pretty straightforward.

It boils down to this: Does the San Mateo District Attorney’s office believe that Gizmodo Editor Jason Chen committed a crime by buying a prototype iPhone for $5,000?

If they do, then the California shield law Chen’s bosses at Gawker Media are citing won’t do them much good. Because the law doesn’t give journalists the ability to commit crimes.

But if authorities are really pursuing the guy who sold Chen the phone, then the shield law should protect Chen and his employers. Because keeping the cops from busting down your door so they can uncover your sources is one of the things the shield law is supposed to do.

That’s about it. Really.

Of course there’s more to chew on, if you have an appetite. For instance, if you want to know why a prototype iPhone that was supposedly left at a bar could be considered stolen goods, you can consult bloggers John Gruber and Jeff Bercovici, who believe this to be the case.

So does Apple (AAPL), according to the Wall Street Journal:

Stephen Wagstaffe, the chief deputy district attorney for San Mateo County, said Apple contacted authorities and “advised us there had been a theft,” which led to the search warrant and an investigation.

You can also feel free to spend time speculating about less important parts about the tale. Like why Gawker Media owner Nick Denton, who says his only loyalty is to his readers, sat on this engrossing story for three days.

One line of questioning that that doesn’t deserve a single brain cell: “Do bloggers count as journalists?”

Denton threw that one out yesterday, suggesting that the case somehow pitted The Man vs. The Web (and everything Good). And I’ve seen some people who should know better take him up on it.

But that’s a facile phrasing and Denton knows it. Because there’s zero question that people who work for a news organization — that’s what Gawker Media is, whether you like it or not — and use blogging tools are journalists. Or at least there’s no question that they get the same protection that “traditional” journalists do.

If you’ve got a lot of extra time on your hands, you might ponder what legal carve-outs like shield laws mean in an era when everyone can be their own private news organization. Whether they make a living at it — and can afford legal counsel — or not.

Luckily for Jason Chen and his employers, though, that’s not an issue here.


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik