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Ill. judge rules that tech blog not covered by shield law

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  1. Protecting Sources and Materials
Writers for a technology blog that published leaked photos of an unreleased Motorola Droid smartphone do not qualify as a…

Writers for a technology blog that published leaked photos of an unreleased Motorola Droid smartphone do not qualify as a reporters for purposes of Illinois' shield law, and so the blog must disclose the identity of a source, a state judge has ruled.

The decision against the consumer electronics blog TechnoBuffalo comes just one month after a federal district court in Oregon made a similar ruling regarding a Montana blogger, finding that she did not qualify as a journalist under Oregon's reporter's shield law.

"This case is important far beyond TechnoBuffalo," said TechnoBuffalo president Jon Rettinger, because it implicates how courts will view other new media speakers when they seek protection under shield laws.

The case arises out of an anonymous tip given to TechnoBuffalo regarding an at-the-time unreleased smartphone, the Motorola Droid Bionic. According to Rettinger, on Aug.17, TechnoBuffalo received an email from an unnamed source containing images that appeared to show the instruction manual for the new phone. After reviewing the pictures, TechnoBuffalo waterstamped them — adding the website's logo to the pictures so that reproduction by other websites would indicate the original source — and posted them online, thanking "an anonymous tipster."

The plaintiff in the case, Johns-Byrne Company, is a printing house that was under contract with Motorola to produce the manual. The printing company believed that whoever had disclosed the pictures had committed theft of trade secrets and possibly breach of contract, and so filed an action against TechnoBuffalo available under Illinois law to compel them to reveal the identity of the source, according to the opinion. TechnoBuffalo asserted that they were protected from doing so under Illinois' reporter's shield law.

In Illinois, reporters are entitled to a qualified privilege of confidentiality for any source of information, according to the Reporters Committee's Privilege Compendium.

Three definitions in the statute are of particular importance to this case. The statute defines "reporter" as "any person regularly engaged in the business of collecting, writing or editing news for publication through a news medium on a full-time or part-time basis."

"News medium" is defined as "any newspaper or other periodical issued at regular intervals whether in print or electronic format and having a general circulation."

A "source" is defined as "the person or means from or through which the news or information was obtained."

Evaluating the case with those definitions, the court ruled that, despite having over one million monthly readers (Rettinger said that, between their articles and their cache of videos, this number was closer to 9 million views per month), TechnoBuffalo did not qualify as a "news medium," its bloggers did not qualify as "reporters," and the anonymous tipster who provided the pictures was not a "source."

"The content on TechnoBuffalo's website may inform viewers how to use certain devices or offer sneak peaks of upcoming technology … [but] [i]t does not 'encourage a well-informed citizenry' to protect the source and type of confidential information disseminated by TechnoBuffalo," the court wrote.

Rettinger strongly disagrees, believing that the court's opinion reflects a lack of understanding of the role of new media. Rettinger maintains that TechnoBuffalo abides by the same ethical strictures of other, more traditional media, and provides valuable information for consumers of technology. "If this were a political leak, we wouldn't be here," Rettinger says, but because TechnoBuffalo publishes about consumer electronics, it was given less respect by the court.

"We educate potential consumers just as you might educate a potential voter," Rettinger said.

TechnoBuffalo plans to ask the judge to reconsider his ruling. Failing that, they plan to appeal, Rettinger said. A representative of Johns-Bryne Company was not available for comment.