You can almost literally hear the buzz from today’s California Court of Appeal ruling in the Apple v. Does case. The champagne is probably flowing at the EFF after the court’s holding that (for the time being) in California, web publishers (this probably includes bloggers) do not have to reveal their confidential sources when they get a news scoop.
Think back. When was the last time you got a secret e-mail from a company insider and posted it to your blog? It’s been awhile, right? So what does the case mean for the run-of-the-mill blogger or web publisher?
I say that the part of the case everyone’s all excited about really doesn’t mean that much.
There is a part of the case, however, that is quite relevant to everyday Internet users. The court gave a detailed analysis of how the federal Stored Communications Act (18 U.S.C. §§2701 – 2712) (“SCA”) requires e-mail messages saved on an ISP’s server to remain undisclosed in the face of a third party civil subpoena.
Here are the basics of the SCA analysis:
In 2004, someone at Apple Computer apparently sent a few e-mails containing confidential details of an unreleased Apple product to the publishers of some Mac enthusiast websites. The publishers of the sites posted the information about the anticipated product, thereby disclosing some of Apple’s trade secrets.
Apple filed suit, and naturally wanted to know who had leaked the information. It issued subpoenas to the e-mail service provider on whose server the surreptitious e-mails were stored, demanding to know the contents of the e-mail messages.
The web publishers asked the trial court for a protective order to prevent the disclosure of the messages, because they wanted to protect their confidential sources. The trial court denied the motion, however, because the publishers had involved themselves in the unlawful misappropriation of a trade secret.
On appeal, the publishers argued, among other things, that the e-mail service provider could not comply with the subpoena without violating the SCA. The Court of Appeal agreed, and reversed the trial court.
The SCA provides, in relevant part, that “a person or entity providing an electronic communication service to the public shall not knowingly divulge to any person or entity the contents of a communication while in electronic storage by that service . . . .” It’s a fancy way of saying that an ISP can’t turn over server copies of e-mail messages. But like any good law enacted by Congress, there are some exceptions.
An ISP can turn over stored communications to a third party, for example, when doing so is “incidental to the protection of the rights or property of the service provider.” Apple argued that this exception should apply, and that the subpoena should be enforced, because failing to comply with the subpoena would subject the service provider to contempt proceedings, thus placing the provider’s property at risk. Read that sentence again. Yep, the court thought that was a circular argument too. And it made no effort to conceal the flaw in logic: “the antecedent assumes the consequents.”
Did you notice that I linked to Wikipedia just then? The court relied on Wikipedia as well in its opinion — no less than ten times! [More on Wikipedia and the courts.]
In any event, the court rejected Apple’s various arguments that the SCA would not prohibit disclosure of the stored e-mail messages. For example, it disagreed with Apple’s argument that there must be an implied exception in the SCA for disclosure of e-mail messages pursuant to a civil subpoena.
The court went on for several pages addressing this argument, analyzing the plain meaning of the SCA, and delving into the policy reasons for its enactment. It concluded that Congress “reasonably decide[d]” that email service providers are a “kind of data bailee to whom email is trusted for delivery and secure storage. . . .”
So at the end of the day, the case is no doubt interesting. Whether the heady First Amendment issues mean anything to the average blogger is not obvious. But the SCA part of the holding is at least refreshing, especially in light of all the other threats to personal privacy looming large recently.
There is plenty of commentary on this case out there already. Try Denise Howell, Joe Gratz, and the EFF for starters.