iPhones and Ethics


by Tony Kontzer

Of all the questions that come to mind when reading about what we can now safely call The Great iPhone Prototype Caper, one strikes me as the most confounding: What on Earth were all the players in this story thinking?

For those who've somehow managed to miss this story: an Apple employee inadvertently left a prototype of what's believed to be the next iPhone release in a bar, and an ethically challenged individual found said iPhone prototype (which was encased in a fake cover resembling an older-model iPhone). The Finder reportedly tried half-heartedly to contact Apple and, when he didn't get a response, sold the device to tech gadget blog Gizmodo for a cool $5,000. Then, once it had investigated the devices innards and determined it was authentic, Gizmodo wrote and wrote and wrote about its findings.

Ironically, those findings--which created the original stir--are no longer the point of the story. The focus is now on the fallout of Gizmodo's decision to buy the phone and run with its findings--a decision that's led to a full-blown investigation, complete with law enforcement storming the house of Jason Chen, the Gizmodo blogger who actually obtained the phone and authored the now-infamous report. That, in turn, has triggered debates over whether California's Shield Law, which prevents journalists from having to share any information accumulated in the news-gathering process, should protect Chen.

Also of interest is what happened before Gizmodo got the phone--namely, how the individual who sold the device to the site actually came across it, and how much Gizmodo's leadership knew, and suspected, about the phone's origins.

I'm not about to opine about whether the episode constitutes a crime in the eye of the law, but since there's no end of questionable actions to dissect here either way, let's consider the actions of the primary players:

-Apple: If Steve Jobs and the rest of the Apple brass really want to keep future products as much of a mystery as possible, why would they send employees out into the world with prototypes? Let them take them out to client meetings or Apple events, perhaps, but allowing nights on the town seems like a gratuitous risk.

-The Finder: Here's a person who finds a valuable object in a bar, takes it home, reportedly makes a few calls to Apple, and three weeks later sells it to a gadget blog? How is this any different from finding a wallet, pocketing the cash, and then throwing the wallet away? It may not be theft in the strictest sense of the word, but the person in question knew what he was doing.

-Chen and/or Gizmodo: Let's see. A guy walks into a bar and finds an iPhone prototype disguised as an older iPhone. It sounds more like the beginning of a racy joke than the makings of a journalistic opportunity. To be honest, I have to admit that any journalist who covers Apple would be tempted by someone offering them a found prototype of a hotly anticipated product. But any editorial staff worth its weight also would make the assumption that the phone was obtained through questionable methods. And if being asked to pay for the phone wasn't going to stop them in their tracks (and it should have), Gizmodo's editors might have thought about their Apple-obsessed audience, which will turn elsewhere if Steve Jobs, as I'd expect, bars Gizmodo writers from future press events.

-Law Enforcement: I may be asking a lot here, but shouldn't the San Mateo Sheriff's Department have brushed up on the Shield Law before seizing a bunch of computing equipment from a blogger's home, rather than promising not to review the evidence until they've done so?

Now, you may be wondering, what should an IT executive care about this story? For one thing, it provides a cautionary tale about what can happen when a company grows too cavalier about how it protects its intellectual property. It could also very well set some sort of precedent about the power of blogs and whether they should be protected by the laws that protect journalists.

If nothing else, it should make for great conversation around the water cooler.