A blog post at Consumerist.com offering tips on buying from Dell drew a nasty cease-and-desist letter from the company's attorney and then, in quick succession, a chastened apology from a Dell manager.
The original post, titled "22 Confessions Of A Former Dell Sales Manager," appeared last Thursday. The same afternoon, Dell attorney Tracy J. Holland sent a nastygram to Consumerist saying the post must be deleted because "it contains information that is confidential and proprietary to Dell."
The offending post included advice like this: "Thursday is the first day of new promotions. If you go to the web site at 11:45 p.m. on Wednesday night and again on 1 a.m. on Thursday morning, the promotions are different. The catalog promotions run from the start of the month to the end."
That legal threat might have worked a decade ago, but not today. The correspondence was Dugg; it was Slashdotted; it was generally dissected and discussed at length by increasingly irate customers (and potential customers) until Dell was forced to turn tail and apologize.
That happened in a "we goofed" post on Saturday by Lionel Menchaca, Dell's digital media manager. He said: "We blew it... Instead of trying to control information that was made public, we should have simply corrected anything that was inaccurate. We didn't do that, and now we're paying for it." (Dell also offers a community forum.)
What makes this case mildly puzzling is that, based on the information that's been made public so far, Consumerist was under no obligation to delete anything. Journalists routinely obtain "confidential and proprietary information" from sources -- in fact, that kind of material, if it checks out, usually makes for the best stories.
I've written scores, if not hundreds, of stories based on confidential leaked government documents. News.com has broken its share of business stories, including being the first to confirm the highly confidential information that Apple was switching to Intel chips. And in the Bartnicki case, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld journalists' First Amendment right to publish highly confidential information (that they had obtained by breaking no laws).
Expecting our esteemed members of the bar to be familiar with the First Amendment might, it's true, be asking too much. But it's heartening to note that at least Consumerist knows its rights under the law, and stood its ground against unfounded legal threats.