CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- Nicholas M. Ciarelli was not even old enough to shave when he started getting under Apple Computer Inc.'s skin.
As a 13-year-old middle-schooler, the New Woodstock, N.Y., native built a Web site in 1998 and began publishing insider news and rumors about Apple, using the alias Nick dePlume.
Sites like his "are good for Apple," says Harvard student Nicholas Ciarelli.
(Jonathan Finer -- The Washington Post)
Three years later, ThinkSecret.com was first to report that the company would debut a G4 version of the PowerBook laptop series. The product launched soon thereafter, along with ThinkSecret's reputation among Apple's legendarily zealous fans, generating millions of page views per month.
But after a series of letters warning the Web site to stop publishing proprietary information, Apple decided enough was enough. When Ciarelli scored yet another scoop in late December, by predicting the arrival of a new software package and a sub-$500 computer rolled out at this week's MacWorld Conference and Expo in San Francisco, the computer maker filed a lawsuit accusing him of illegally misappropriating trade secrets.
Ciarelli, now a 19-year-old Harvard University freshman, is part of a legion of Internet news gatherers whose influence is expanding as concern grows in some quarters about their accountability and journalistic standards. With the easy anonymity offered by online posting of tips and digital photographs, Web sites run by product buffs have caused headaches, and generated valuable buzz, for companies in many industries -- including automobile and cell phone manufacturers -- by leaking product information.
Ciarelli said he originally chose a pseudonym because he doubted many people would take a teenager seriously. He was publicly unmasked as ThinkSecret's editor in chief by the Harvard Crimson newspaper, which reported on the lawsuit this week.
"I talk to sources, follow up on leads and get details confirmed," said Ciarelli, a somewhat atypical technology savant who knows little about computer programming. "I believe that like other reporters I am protected by the First Amendment."
Apple, based in Cupertino, Calif., sees things differently: "Defendants' knowing misappropriation and disclosure of Apple's trade secrets constitutes a violation of California law and has caused irreparable harm to Apple," states its legal complaint, which was filed in California's Santa Clara County Superior Court.
A spokesman for the company, whose fortunes have been boosted this year by sales of its iPod digital music player, declined to comment on the case beyond a written statement. "Apple's DNA is innovation, and the protection of our trade secrets is crucial to our success," the company said in the statement.
Close followers of the company said Apple is unique among computer makers for the slew of fan Web sites that track its every move and compete for scoops. Though opinions of their quality varied -- some reports are wildly off-base -- many industry insiders monitor the sites regularly.