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Mac Musings

Web Publishing Ethics

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- 19 June 2000 - Tip Jar

Web publishing evolved rapidly, starting about five years ago when the World Wide Web began to enter public awareness. It's a very new medium with few hard and fast rules - and those rules have nothing to do with published content, only with how you make a page accessible to a web browser.

Many have commented that this is the "Wild West" era of the internet, a phrase that users all over the world are familiar with due to the widespread popularity of the American Western. The Wild West was known for roughness, for "every man (and woman) doing what was right in his eyes." It was not known for the rule of law.

World Wide

The Web is a truly international phenomenon, although still mostly English and highly U.S.-centric. This site is read all over the United States, Canada, Australia, Great Britain, New Zealand, Japan, South Africa, Singapore, the Netherlands, Germany, and who knows how many other countries.

That's great, but raises some big issues: is the content of Low End Mac (or any other site) subject to the laws of each of these jurisdictions? Or is it subject only to the laws of the point of origin? Or might it be subject to the laws of the nation responsible for your domain name? (This is an important point. Several U.K. sites have moved to U.S. domains and/or servers to free themselves from restrictive British libel laws.)

At this point, these questions are just beginning to get sorted out. One of the more interesting places to see these issues discussed is Slashdot, since their forums are open to participants by all comers.

As someone who has grown up in the United States with free speech and a free press, I have strong biases in that direction. So do most Slashdotters. So do most who publish on the Web.

The question is: Can we maintain our high standards of freedom on the truly international Web, or will we become subject to myriad local laws or United Nations legislation? (The last is a very real possibility.)

Different

The World Wide Web is different from all that has come before it. Like the printed page, it's a text-oriented medium. Like radio and television, content is available immediately upon publication. Like a library, most Web content is available for months and years after publication.

Unlike the printed page, content is readily changed and updated. Unlike radio and TV, content can be perused at your leisure, not only at a certain time on a certain day.

Laws and codes of ethics written for print journalists and broadcast journalists need to be modified for the different realities of the Web.

Powerful

The general public has come to view information found on the Web with the same respect given to newspapers, magazines, and news broadcasts. They take us more seriously than we take ourselves at times, as we've learned by publishing parody rumors on The Rumor Mill.

What we publish may be viewed by dozens, hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands around the world. On some sites, maybe even millions. What we say and how we say it can influence people's opinions; we need to be responsible for what we publish.

Ethics

As a college philosophy major, I once signed up for an ethics class. I quickly learned it was designed for business majors; I bailed. At that point, I never expected to be a Web publisher. (The Web didn't exist in 1977, but you get the idea.)

At the time, it struck me as odd that ethics would target business, but in retrospect it makes sense: that's where our code of conduct is most stressed, so that's where it needs to be clearly defined. When we fail to work ethically, the government steps in with laws to coerce us.

Trade Secrets

Our first run-in with Apple's lawyers came when we posted How Old is My Mac? in January 1999. Many months earlier, someone had posted on one of the many email lists or newsgroups information on deciphering the serial number on your computer: the first two or three characters indicated where it was built, the first digit is the last digit of the year when it was built, and the next two digits indicate the week of the year. (It's really easy to verify if you have some older Apple hardware that also prints the month and year of assembly on the serial number label.)

Apple considered that information a trade secret. Their lawyers contacted us, so we removed the information from our site.

We have since learned that Apple can no longer consider this information a trade secret, since it has been widely disseminated on the Web. We learned this via Slashdot when Microsoft tried to post "trade secret" information about their proprietary Kerberos implementation on the Web.

Following discussion on the Adobe vs. AppleInsider affair, we've also discovered that if you publish trade secrets but don't know they are trade secrets, which was the case with How Old is My Mac?, you can't be held liable. At the same time, publication of that information on the Web destroys their status as trade secrets.

If we had known in January 1999 that the information was considered a trade secret, I doubt we would have published How Old is My Mac? In fact, when Apple's lawyers contacted us, we complied with their request to remove the material from our site. Today, knowing what we do and knowing other sources had already put the information on the Web, we would not hesitate to publish the key to deciphering the age of your Apple hardware on our site.

Copyright

There used to be something called fair use. I'm not sure if it really exists any longer, thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Law.

Under fair use, you may quote copyrighted information for personal use or in a publication discussing the copyrighted material. It was precisely this which got Slashdot into hot water with Microsoft when portions of their Kerberos protocol were published on Slashdot (see Microsoft vs. Slashdot). The issue was copyright as much as trade secret.

At this point, Slashdot has held their ground. Microsoft appears to have backed down from their demands.

Kihei

Up until the Adobe vs. AppleInsider fiasco,* the most challenging issues for the Mac web were tied to the release of the slot-loading iMacs (code name: Kihei) last October (see Kihei pictures pulled).

* If you missed last week's news, Adobe has filed suit against MacNN, the publisher of AppleInsider, for publishing screen shots and excerpts from Adobe's documentation on AppleInsider.

From about September 23, 1999, Mac sites were abuzz over the next generation iMac. The Mac Observer published detailed specifications. MacOS Rumors and AppleInsider had lots of information on "Kihei," including some design details. Then MacNews.de somehow obtained and published Apple-owned photos of the forthcoming iMacs on or about September 27, 1999. One or more of these photos found their way to AppleInsider, MacWeek, Macs Only!, Low End Mac, and even Apple legal may not know how many other sites.

Some sites posted the photos as gospel; others (Low End Mac included) published reduced photos as possible pictures of the new iMac, as news links.

Apple legal quickly verified that The Mac Observer had published the correct specifications and MacNews.de has posted actual photos by demanding the information be removed. Of course, the damage had been done. Many other sites had already reproduced the photos and discussed the specifications, so Apple legal had a busy week doing fire damage.

In our case, and this is something I'm still frustrated about, Apple legal contacted our ISP about removing the Kihei photo before contacting me, the publisher. Our host was kind enough to contact me before doing anything, and was even thoughtful to the point of forwarding the email he had received from Apple legal. That was especially nice, since Apple somehow managed to dig up who my host was and email them without ever bothering to use my email address on the page in question. Although I did honor their request, they never actually contacted me as the publisher of Low End Mac.

But that's not the end of the story. MacWeek kept their photo up. They were the big site with the big bucks and the big legal team. Either Apple never asked them to remove the photo, which I find unlikely, or Mac Publishing's lawyers said, "Nothing doing."

Knowing what we know today, we would not have removed the Kihei photo. It was used as news and clearly marked as possibly being the new iMac. In fact, there was some discussion on the Web, at The Daily Mac in particular, about this all being a clever Photoshop-constructed hoax.

Thus, we used a possibly fraudulent illustration in a link (Photos of the new iMac?) that questioned its authenticity. Further, we posted the photo days after MacNews.de published it. Thus, even if it had been authentic and considered a trade secret, it had lost trade secret status the first time someone viewed the photo on the MacNews.de site.

The other issue, of course, is copyright. Apple may have been able to claim copyright infringement by MacNews.de, although MacNews.de probably would have responded with a claim of fair use.

It's a sticky situation, but that's our current understanding.

A Code of Ethics

As noted above, we're in the Wild West era of the Web. It's a very different paradigm than print and broadcast media. The law is only starting to grapple with that.

Because of its instantaneous worldwide nature, we of the Mac Web need to be responsible netizens, whether publishers or writers. Thus the call by David Schultz (see Adobe and Law & Order on the Mac Web and A Mac Web code of ethics: Foundations) for Mac writers and publishers to work together in creating a code of ethics.

As Schultz notes, this is not something to rush into. Instead, we need to quickly agree that it is important, then spend time hammering out a workable code of ethics that addresses the broadly international and nearly instantaneous nature of the Web in light of our personal convictions.

We at Low End Mac have always tried to do the right thing: removing content when Apple legal said we should, revising articles when they were less correct than they should have been, clearly labeling rumors. We've learned a lot as we've gone along.

We support a code of ethics for the Mac Web and look forward to participating in this project.

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Dan Knight has been using Macs since 1986, sold Macs for several years, supported them for many more years, and has been publishing Low End Mac since April 1997. If you find Dan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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