[Disclaimer : This post isn’t intended to provide legal guidance or advice of any sort and should not be taken as such.]
See the thing with dictators is they can appear to be really good people. They can do good things that help their subjects. Yeh, the elections are rigged, but so what? They give everyone jobs and prosperity. They speak with clear direction and unbounded confidence. The masses need someone to lead them. Hell, many societies don’t even have a value system. Yet things don’t get out of hand because their Dear Leader will get out the big stick if he needs to and they know it. And that’s ok. Because he knows best.
A couple of months ago, I blogged here that Apple knows best. I was primarily talking about design in that post. I noted that Apple doesn’t do things like beta programs or illicit feedback. They just put stuff out. For the most part, the stuff is good…really good. So we blindly follow.
The blogging community does its part and then some. We spread gossip. We talk about their products. We point to their patent filings. We do our part to contribute to the Apple mystique. We create buzz. And Apple has slyly used the viral aspects of the Web and blogging in particular to spread their religion.
Well now the dictator’s cleaning house. The thing with dictators is there actually doesn’t need to be a real threat, just a perceived one. A few days ago Think Secret, a popular Apple gossip blog, shut down in compliance with an agreement they reached with Apple.
Now, Fake Steve Jobs has been visited by Apple’s goon lawyers. He’s been notified that a few of his posts are "actionable" (legal-speak for "we can sue you"). The letter politely ends with a list of Fake Steve Jobs’ personal assets.
Fake Steve Jobs is Fake Steve Jobs. Not real Steve Jobs. Fortune magazine and the Wall Street Journal haven’t once confused the two. He is a commentator commenting on a public figure. It is a parody blog. What that means is that Daniel Lyons, the author behind the site, knows he’s not the real Steve Jobs (unless of course, he’s suffering from delusions of grandeur). He isn’t attempting to spread false truths. The entire premise of the site is grounded in parody.
Twenty years ago, Hustler magazine put out an especially nasty parody where it portrayed Jerry Falwell, a popular Protestant minister, having sex with his mother in an outhouse. The case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Hustler magazine prevailed. In essence, the case clarified the right to parody, make fun of, mock, deride, imitate and crudely insult public figures.
Apple is picking off the easy targets. Fake Steve Jobs is not Time Warner or the New York Times. He’s a blogger that can more easily be bullied by dipshit lawyers that can threaten his livelihood. Also, regardless of the merits of their assertions, they can drag Lyons into a protracted, costly, ugly fight that would most likely lead to him backing down.
What the blogging community needs is clear precedent that extends the free speech protections outlined in the Hustler v. Falwell case to include bloggers. I’m a blogger myself that has criticized behemoths like Microsoft, Google and Apple. I don’t want to think twice before I blog.
Apple is setting a frightening precedent. It’s signaling to other companies that with the right amount of bullying, you can shut down the bloggers you don’t like. It’s ironic considering that the blogging community is generally extremely supportive of Apple. Microsoft takes beatings on a daily basis yet we don’t see this kind of nonsense from them.
One thing the blogging community can do is stop hyping and spreading the buzz about Apple’s products. Popular sites like Gizmodo and The Unofficial Apple Weblog can help signal to Apple that they need to back off or the free ride is over.
Apple needs to know that the same makeshift PR machine that helps hype its products isn’t actually its own PR machine. Putting out shiny new products doesn’t afford you license to selectively muzzle certain voices.
From the Falwell v. Hustler Magazine opinion:
At the heart of the First Amendment is the recognition of the fundamental importance of the free flow of ideas and opinions on matters of public interest and concern. The freedom to speak one’s mind is not only an aspect of individual liberty — and thus a good unto itself — but also is essential to the common quest for truth and the vitality of society as a whole.