The online news and review site TechnoBuffalo need not reveal the identity of a source who leaked images of a smartphone that hadn't yet been released to the public, a judge in Illinois has ruled.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Michael Panter said in his ruling that TechnoBuffalo is covered by the state's media shield law, which prohibits judges from ordering journalists to disclose their sources. "TechnoBuffalo is a news medium, its employees are reporters ... and TechnoBuffalo is protected by the Illinois reporter's privilege," Panter wrote.
The dispute dates to August of 2011, when TechnoBuffalo posted of images of the Motorola Droid Bionic smartphone prior to its release.
The printer Johns-Byrne Company believed that the images came from a manual it was printing, and sought a court order requiring TechnoBuffalo to disclose records of its communications for a one-week period in August. Panter originally ordered TechnoBuffalo to provide the data, but agreed to reconsider after the company protested that it was protected by the state shield law.
The broad shield law in Illinois protects anyone who regularly collects, writes or edits news for publication in print or electronic formats.
Johns-Byrne argued that TechnoBuffalo didn't act as a reporter because it "passively" solicits information from readers by asking them to submit "inside information" about new devices.
But Panter ruled that TechnoBuffalo's reporting methods aren't relevant to whether the site qualifies for the shield law. "There is no requirement in the statutory language that a reporter must actively seek out the information reported," he wrote.
Despite ruling in TechnoBuffalo's favor, Panter criticized the site for encouraging "subversive conduct."
The judge particularly blasted a November 2009 post seeking confidential news tips, which included the following language: "At TechnoBuffalo we always treat our sources like the super secret ninjas they are. If you want your identity kept secret, we will take your name to the grave." (That language no longer appears in the news-tips section of the site, but remains visible online.)
Panter said in his opinion that TechnoBuffalo's requests for leaks are "particularly detrimental to the intellectual property industry."
The judge added: "Unlike other famous secrets whose sources were protected in order to inform citizens of government corruption and police misconduct, the sole purpose of the TechnoBuffalo solicitation is to promote TechnoBuffalo, without a second thought as to what harm it may cause lawful and productive companies whose stolen information it leaks."
Most states have shield laws that allow journalists to protect their sources, but many of the statutes predate the Internet. This situation has led to court battles centered on whether bloggers can be forced to reveal the identities of their sources. In one highly publicized case, an appeals court in California ruled in 2006 that the state's shield law applies to bloggers, as well as journalists who work for mainstream media outlets. Judges in that case ruled that Apple Computer wasn't entitled to learn who leaked information to bloggers.