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EFF appeals Apple fan site ruling

The confidentiality of journalists' sources is at issue in the trade secrets case.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation said Tuesday that it has appealed a court ruling that could force Apple Computer fan sites to give up their confidential sources to the company.

Apple is suing as-yet-unnamed parties who are alleged to have leaked information about an unreleased product to Think Secret, Apple Insider, PowerPage and other Web sites. It has been seeking to force PowerPage's Internet service provider to give up Net records that could point to the identity of the person who disclosed the information.

A California Superior Court judge ruled earlier this month that the company had the right to seek the sites' sources, because traditional confidentiality protections for journalists did not cover the release of confidential trade secrets. The EFF, which is representing two of the Web sites, said that ruling threatens journalist freedoms, as well as e-mail privacy.

The decision's "sweeping terms threaten every journalist, whether publishing in print, radio, television or on the Internet," the group wrote in its request Tuesday for a hearing by the California court of appeal. "The question is only whether Apple may ride roughshod over the reporter's privilege and the reporter's shield in its eagerness to obtain evidence."

The case has been widely viewed as a test for whether a new generation of online publishers, from bloggers to fan sites, would qualify for longstanding journalist protections against having to divulge confidential sources.

But in his ruling, Superior Court Judge James P. Kleinberg avoided that issue. Reporters' release of corporate trade secrets, unless they were of vital public concern, were not covered by traditional protections even for ordinary publications, he said.

The information about Apple's unreleased products "is stolen property, just as any physical item, such as a laptop computer containing the same information on its hard drive (or not), would be," Kleinberg wrote. "The bottom line is there is no exception or exemption in either the (Uniform Trade Secrets Act) or the Penal Code for journalists--however defined--or anyone else."

The judge delayed his order from taking effect for seven days in order to give the EFF time to appeal the ruling to a higher court.

An Apple representative reiterated the company's position that "protection of our trade secrets is crucial to our success."

CNET's Ina Fried contributed to this report.