Thursday, April 22, 2010

Apple, Gawker, the iPhone and Ethics

500x_iphone4_01 Over the weekend, niche gadget site Gizmodo posted a detailed analysis of what is believed to be the next iteration of Apple’s ever-popular iPhone months before Apple had planned to reveal the device to the public.

As it turns out, the coverage of the coverage has proven to be far more interesting than the actual product, which appears to be largely similar to the existing iPhone 3GS with one or two superfluous perks (you mean there’s a camera on the other side now?!). Everything from the legitimacy of the leaked product to the means by which Gizmodo acquired the device has been called into question, making for quite a bit of excitement among the Apple enthusiast press (and, it should be said, providing a welcome break from unceasing coverage of the recently released iPad).

The most interesting questions this story raises are ethical ones – did Gizmodo break the law by obtaining and publishing a piece about the device, and did the party that gave the phone to Gizmodo break laws as well? Has Gizmodo, part of the Gawker media empire and ostensibly a professional member of the press, done right by the companies whose products it covers as well as its readers? Read on for a breakdown of the story and some of my thoughts.


For those of you not familiar with this story, I’ll outline the essentials first.

- A 27-year-old Apple software engineer named Gray Powell leaves an iPhone on a stool in a bar. This iPhone is encased in a plastic shell that makes it look more or less like an ordinary iPhone 3GS, but in actuality it is a mostly functional prototype of the forthcoming 4th-gen iPhone.

- A Random Drunk Guy, as yet unnamed in any story I’ve read, comes along and finds the phone. He asks around the bar a bit and can’t find its owner, so he takes it home.

- Random Drunk Guy, now Random Hungover Guy, wakes to discover that the iPhone has been disabled remotely by MobileMe, an Apple service that can wipe lost or stolen iPhones to protect users’ data.

- At this point, he notices a few things about the phone that don’t match up with any currently available iPhone models. He pries the plastic shell apart and discovers the gadget that Gizmodo later showed the world.

Now, the timeline gets a little fuzzy. Gizmodo’s account of the phone’s journey (more on this piece later) says that he tried to call Apple directly about the phone, but that they wouldn’t take his call seriously. Now, fast forward to “weeks later.”

- Gizmodo, part of the Gawker media empire, pays Random Guy $5000 to obtain the phone. Coverage ensues.

Random Drunk Guy’s Behavior

chubby_bro I think it’s safe to say that of all the shady dealings going on here, Random Drunk Guy’s are the shadiest. He claims to have tried contacting Apple about the device, but apparently made no efforts to contact the bar he found the phone in or hand it over to the local police department. Since he was knowledgeable enough to figure out that the iPhone he found didn’t match any current iPhone models, we can safely assume that he knew he had something that nobody outside Apple was supposed to have.

From this assumption, it follows that RDG is the guy contacting media outlets wanting money for his discovery – I doubt that even Gawker spends much time contacting random locals looking for dropped prototypes. It can be said with some certainty that RDG had at that point sold something he knew did not belong to him to another party for money.

Note that his name has not been revealed to the press, even after Gawker’s gleeful outing of the Apple employee who lost the phone in the first place. I imagine that this is to protect Gawker just as much as it is to protect their source (and I wouldn’t be surprised if they had promised RDG anonymity along with the cash they paid) – if the press doesn’t know who RDG is, the press can’t gather information that might implicate Gawker in some sort of misdeed. Which leads us to…

Gawker’s Behavior

gawker_logo It’s quite possible that Gawker broke one or both of two laws by obtaining this phone and publishing their piece. First, they paid money for goods that could be considered stolen. Gawker has vehemently denied that they knew anything about where the phone came from, though whether that would hold up in court is debatable – they were buying what turned out to be genuine, unreleased Apple hardware from a third party who definitely had nothing to do with Apple. I think they could have suspected.

Secondly, by doing a write-up on all the phone’s new features and tearing the thing apart in detail on their site, Gawker revealed some of Apple’s trade secrets, breaking several California laws. DailyFinance’s Jeff Bercovici has posted a pretty solid write-up of exactly why Gawker could be in some trouble if Apple decides to sue.

Legality of their actions aside, Gawker has behaved unethically throughout their coverage – most egregiously, they decided to post the name of the Apple engineer who lost the phone in the first place on the front page of their site, along with a high-resolution picture of the guy. They claim that this will somehow generate sympathy for him and help him retain his Apple job, but I can’t see this having any effect but the exact opposite. The poor guy’s going to go to job interviews years from now only to be asked, “aren’t you the guy who lost the iPhone in the bar?”

It’s much more likely that Gawker thought that Powell’s name would come out anyway and, in an advertising-driven industry where five minutes can separate a traffic-generating scoop from a ho-hum repost of someone else’s coverage, they decided to run the story.

Gawker has also been a little cagey about the circumstances by which they obtained the phone. While the $5000 they paid Random Drunk Guy is now freely admitted, their initial pieces said merely “we got it.” This piece has been updated with information about the transaction, but no such information was there when it was originally posted (and, thus, front-page, above-the-fold news). Perhaps an oversight, more likely a dodge.

apple_logo Lastly, Gawker hasn’t really done right by Apple. I’m not Apple’s biggest fan – I generally like their products, but object to their restrictive platforms and strong-arm business and marketing tactics – but Gawker let the cat out of the bag on the new iPhone in a time when competitors like the Droid and other smartphones are beginning to catch up to Apple, squandering some of their competitive edge.

In Charge Shot!!!’s limited (but cherished) interactions with the people who make the media we consume, I’ve learned that professional behavior goes a long way. If you send us a copy of something for review, we’re not going to give it a rave write-up just because we got it for free, but we’ll give our honest opinion, we’ll let you know about it, and we’ll thank you for the opportunity.

A lapse in this dialogue can get you off of a developer’s dislist the next time around, making it harder for you to cover their products for your readers. Especially given the high-profile nature of this particular story, Gawker and Gizmodo may have damaged their reputation with other vendors as well. Maybe Gawker did right by their constituents in the short-term when they ran this story, but it’s definitely going to sour their already tepid relationship with Apple, perhaps to their coverage’s future detriment.

Going forward

We haven’t yet seen all of the fallout from this story – Apple may have the option to take legal action, but they haven’t as of this writing. The Apple engineer who lost the iPhone prototype, to the best of my knowledge, still has his job, but this too may change in the coming days and weeks.

As is usual with Apple news, it may take a week or two for the dust around this story to settle. What is clear is that Gawker and Gizmodo acted irresponsibly, both in their dealings to obtain this new prototype iPhone and in their later coverage of the device.

We’ll continue our coverage of these events as they unfold, whether in posts or in our podcast, or perhaps in a later write-up about the new iPhone itself. This story prompted an excellent bout of discussion in our writing team’s (normally silly) email thread, and we know you have something to say about it too - as always, sound off in the Comments section!