A recent ruling by a Californian court on the rights of online journalists has wide-reaching implications, argues internet law professor Michael Geist.
The blossoming of citizen journalism stands as one of the internet's most exciting developments.
Apple was incensed about rumours of a new product
With millions of bloggers, tens of millions of internet posters, and hundreds of millions of readers, online news sources have radically reshaped the way we access our daily news.
While mainstream news organisations initially expressed doubt about the news value of online sources such as blogs, in recent months many have launched their own blogs, frequently maintained by some of their most distinctive voices.
Indeed, the remarkable growth of the blogosphere is enough to convince even the most die-hard sceptic that something important is afoot. Technorati, a blog search engine, reports that it tracks 75,000 new blogs each day.
Collaborative news sites, staffed by volunteer citizen journalists, have also grown in popularity. OhmyNews, a South Korean news site that publishes exclusively user-generated stories in both Korean and English, has developed into one of that country's leading news sources.
From a media perspective, the emergence of citizen journalism has blurred the line separating mainstream media from online new media.
Just over a week ago, a California appeals court took a major step toward eliminating any legal distinction in a case involving Apple Computer and two online news sites.
The two sites, PowerPage and AppleInsider, published several articles in November 2004 about a rumoured new Apple product called Asteroid.
Apple was incensed at the disclosures, and soon after sued the sites for disclosing information that it maintained constituted valuable trade secrets.
A trial court quickly granted Apple's request for a court order requiring the sites to provide any information that might help them to identify who was responsible for the disclosures.
The sites appealed, arguing that both California law and the US constitution provided legal protections against compelling journalists to reveal the identity of their sources.
The California appeals court was therefore faced with a novel question. Are online journalists entitled to the same legal protections as their offline counterparts?
Apple argued that they are not, maintaining that the sites were not engaged in "legitimate journalistic activities" and that online journalists "were not among the class of journalists protected by the statute".
The court roundly rejected both arguments. It first concluded that there was "no workable test or principle that would distinguish 'legitimate' from 'illegitimate' news". It added that the statute is "intended to protect the gathering and dissemination of news", which is precisely what the online sites were doing.
The court was similarly supportive of the proposition that online journalists should be entitled to constitutional protections, stating that "we can see no sustainable basis to distinguish petitioners [the online journalists] from the reporters, editors, and publishers who provide news to the public through traditional print and broadcast media".
"It is established without contradiction that they gather, select, and prepare, for purposes of publication to a mass audience, information about current events of interest and concern to that audience," said the court.
The reverberations from the Apple case may resonate worldwide, particularly given the recent spate of lawsuits and court orders against online news sites.
For example, in Canada a former director of a national political party recently sued OpenPolitics.ca, a British Columbia-based political chat site, after he objected to several comments posted on the site.
Similarly, P2Pnet.net, another online news site in British Columbia, is facing a lawsuit ironically filed by Sharman Networks, the company behind the Kazaa file-sharing system, that itself has been dragged through the courts in Australia.
In both Canadian cases, the sites are maintained by individuals who rely on contributions from the community for much of their news content.
While fans of the sites have rallied to provide support, the legal issues may ultimately turn on whether the Canadian courts adopt protections similar to those now found in California.
The Canadian suits have been replicated in many jurisdictions around the world. In Germany, Heise Online, an online news site, last year faced a temporary restraining order preventing it from publishing reader comments that call on others to overload a company's server by massively downloading a program.
In practice, the publisher said it would have to review all comments and discussion forums to make sure that this is not happening.
The implications of the California decision are profound as they may change more than just journalism.
The premise of press-specific legal protections is that journalists do more than just inform - they keep our leaders and institutions accountable to the public. In order to persuade sources to reveal information hidden from view, they depend upon assurances of absolute confidentiality.
The California court examined the state of online journalism and found that it too deserves the legal protections crafted for the press.
In doing so, it has extended those protections to everyone, effectively stating that we can all play a role in keeping our leaders accountable. We are all journalists now.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law.