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Computer-Savvy Frosh Faces Lawsuit

By Tina Wang, Crimson Staff Writer

Freshman year is usually a hectic period of adjustment for any student.

But only a semester into his first year at Harvard, Nicholas M. Ciarelli ’08, also had to deal with being sued by a major computer company.

After enthusiastically keeping watch over Apple Computer, Inc. for the last seven years on his popular Mac information website, Ciarelli did not expect that the computer giant had also increased its scrutiny of him.

But on Jan. 4, the company filed a lawsuit against Ciarelli.

SCOOPING APPLE

Ciarelli, who goes by the name Nick dePlume on the internet, started thinksecret.com, which publishes information about Apple products and developments by soliciting insider tips, in 1998—when he was only 13 years old.

Ciarelli did not resemble a kid with technological brilliance so much as a journalist with a lot of initiative.

“When I started out, it was not, like, a serious thing,” says Ciarelli. “I already had this interest in Apple products. I was very interested in what was coming next. I definitely wanted to be able to report that kind of news to people.”

“I won’t say that I was terribly successful at that when I was 13 or 14,” he adds.

“I guess it’s really the same thing as any reporter who’s starting out on a beat,” Ciarelli continues. “In most cases, when you’re starting out on the beat, you know no one and you just have to start from scratch.”

Eventually, Ciarelli built up sources and thinksecret.com was able to report on products before Apple officially released them, increasing the site’s popularity.

“A lot of the site’s popularity has been tied to big scoops. Each big scoop just adds on to your track record for reporting on Apple,” says Ciarelli.

Thinksecret.com broke news of the arrival of the $499 Mac mini and iLife ’05 software package two weeks before their official release by Apple.

And it announced that Apple would unveil a digital music player one week before Apple released its first iPod in 2001.

In the early stages of the site’s development, Ciarelli remembers being “blown away” by the number of hits his website was receiving.

The site’s current traffic is as high as several million page views a month, according to Ciarelli, who also says that the site generates a healthy profit.

In the course of developing his site, Ciarelli, who is also a Crimson editor, says he came to see himself more as a journalist covering Apple than a technological whiz.

“I have a lot of technology sitting on my desk, but at the same time I know lots of people who are much, much more technical than I am,” says Ciarelli, who adds that the experience has helped to foster his interest in journalism.

BEING WATCHED

And his stance as a journalist is a part of his defense against Apple’s lawsuit.

Apple Inc. alleged in a suit filed in the Superior Court of California, County of Santa Clara in Jan. 4, that Ciarelli had published “trade secrets” which he illegally solicited from Apple employees who had signed contracts of confidentiality.

“Defendants’ knowing misappropriation and disclosure of Apple’s trade secrets constitutes a violation of California law and has caused irreparable harm to Apple,” the lawsuit states.

Apple could not be reached for comment for this article.

Ciarelli has denied any wrongdoing, saying that he is a journalist who obtained information through legal news-gathering practices.

The freshman devoted most of his January reading period to searching for a lawyer.

He eventually found prominent internet lawyer Terry Gross through the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization which advocates the protection of civil liberties as related to technology and the internet.

Gross says he decided to represent Ciarelli pro bono because “I thought that what would happen is a large corporation trying to bully a small journalist.”

Gross says that big corporations use lawsuits as a strategy to intimidate journalists who cannot afford sufficient legal representation.

“Corporations have been doing this for years, for decades, using the legal system improperly as a way to intimidate and silence people they don’t like,” Gross says.

Ciarelli is protected by the First Amendment, Gross says, and cites Bartnicki v. Vopper (2001), in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the media defendants who had legally published information that was illegally obtained by others.

Ciarelli has filed a counter-motion to dismiss the case.

A hearing, originally set for April, is scheduled for June 28, after Apple asked for some extension time, according to Gross.

ENTERPRISING STUDENT

Ciarelli says that despite the lawsuit, his enthusiasm for Apple has not diminished.

He plans to continue to run the website, though he has had to juggle maintaining it with his course workload and extracurricular interests.

“I was really into the history of the company and the whole culture surrounding Apple,” says Ciarelli.

According to Ciarelli, “the thing that mystifies observers of the computer industry” is that “users of Apple products have often become addicted to those products. Not everyone, but a lot of people.”

And despite the lawsuit, “the next computer that I buy is going to be a Mac,” Ciarelli says.

—Staff writer Tina Wang can be reached at tinawang@fas.harvard.edu.

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