free legal advice (at least in California, for now)

And no, I don’t mean this blog, because as you know I don’t dispense legal advice here.

In any event, read about a new startup called LawPivot in an entry from the venerable TechCrunch. It’s described by TC as “a self described “Quora for legal” that allows technology companies to confidentially ask legal questions to expert attorneys.” And currently, for free. By the looks of it, seems to be limited to California for the time being. But hurry! Apparently the business model is to eventually charge both the askers and the askees for access.

TechCrunch seems to be bullish on its prospects. Myself a bit less so. I would think that one of the drivers of something like this would be to develop a critical mass of legal information or advice, much in the same way that many law firms have started developing massive indexed and searchable databases both for their internal use and sometimes for access by clients. Limiting it to one-off queries seems to limit the ability to leverage advice and to result in, to some extent, a duplication of efforts by the various lawyers seeking to impress a potential client.

But who knows. Perhaps they plan to leverage content in some other way at a later stage. Worth keeping an eye on. And of course, if you’re in Calfornia, worth giving a spin if you’re looking for some free legal advice.

the gizmodo/jason chen/search warrant debacle

There have been many views expressed on both the propriety of Gizmodo breaking the story on the next-gen iPhone as well as the subsequent search warrant executed by the police against Jason Chen, the Gizmodo reporter that broke the story. Needless to say, each side has its supporters. A good summary with links to contrasting views can be found on GigaOm.

I won’t rehash all the arguments either for or against the execution of the warrant or its validity – you can check out the link above for all of that. The only thing I did want to point out was the possibility that a previous, somewhat similar case, may perhaps have prompted the criminal investigation leading to the search warrant. O’Grady v. The Superior Court of Santa Clara County (pdf) was a case in 2006 that also involved Apple. Apple was seeking civil subpoenas to certain websites that published information that it claimed to be trade secrets, in order to discover the source of the disclosures. The publishers moved for a protective order, which was denied at trial. However, the protective order was granted on appeal.

Though there were various bases on which the court found in favour of the websites, the one that seems relevant to the Chen search warrant relates to the California reporter’s shield – the same California legislation cited by the chief operating officer of Gizmodo as making the search illegal. In short, the appeal court in O’Grady found that “any subpoenas seeking unpublished information from petitioners would be unenforceable through contempt proceedings in light of the California reporter’s shield (Cal. Const., art. I, § 2, subd (b); Evid. Code, § 1070)”.

More importantly, the appeal court had this to say about what was alleged by Apple to be criminal activity and reviewing the lower courts findings on same:

The court found petitioners’ assertion of a constitutional privilege “overstated” because “[r]eporters and their sources do not have a license to violate criminal laws such as Penal Code [section] 499c [(§ 499c)].” 8 The court assumed petitioners to be journalists, but wrote that “this is not the equivalent of a free pass” and that they could still be compelled to reveal information relating to a crime. The court repeatedly alluded to the supposed presence of criminal or larcenous conduct. The court also faulted petitioners for failing to establish “what public interest was served” by the publications in question. While acknowledging evidence that thousands of people were interested in the information in question, the court opined that “an interested public is not the same as the public interest.” The court implied that the publications in question were not “ ‘protected speech.’”

Though the appeal court didn’t dwell much further on the relevance of the alleged criminal acts to the California reporter’s shield in the body of the decision, the foonote to the excerpt above is rather informative:

8 Section 499c criminalizes the misappropriation or attempted misappropriation of trade secrets under specified circumstances. Although Apple alluded to this statute in its memorandum below, and does so again before us, it has never demonstrated that the facts here could establish a criminal theft of trade secrets. That offense requires proof of, among other things, “intent to deprive or withhold the control of [the] trade secret from its owner, or . . . to appropriate [the] trade secret to [the defendant’s] own use or to the use of another . . . .” (§ 499c, subd. (b).) Since Apple has never argued the point, no occasion is presented to consider whether the inferred circumstances of the disclosure here could be found to constitute a crime. For present purposes we are concerned only with an allegedly tortious disclosure of a trade secret presumably by an Apple employee.”

It would seem clear that the court took pains to distinguish between a tortious disclosure of a trade secret, versus a criminal misappropriation of a trade secret. And although the court does not make any findings as to what might have happened if there were a basis to claim of criminal wrongdoing, the implication of the note above is that the findings on appeal may well have been different, if only apple had presented any facts to establish a crime. (All that being said, the EFF has expressed the opinion that both the California shield law as well as the federal Privacy Protection Act would make such a search illegal, even if a crime were committed)

So here Apple is, facing a similar situation as in O’Grady, and knowing that it will likely have either very limited or no ability to successfully obtain civil subpoenas given the finding in O’Grady, but with a little crack in the door suggesting that if criminal misconduct could be successfully demonstrated, it may have some chance of success. That seems better than nothing.

Given the above, it seems logical that Apple would want to request the DA to commence a criminal investigation (though to be clear, reports indicate that the DA has declined to indicate who instigated the investigation), either for plain theft or for theft of trade secrets, in order to enable it to seek some sort of remedy for the leaked information, though I’ll admit that if the above is correct its not clear to me exactly what remedy Apple would be seeking – in contrast to O’Grady, the identity of the Apple rep who lost the phone (and all the gory details) is already public. Perhaps the identity of the person who picked it up (which doesn’t appear to be public)? Though I’m not sure what that gets Apple, other than perhaps fiery retribution against the fellow and disgorgement of his ill-gotten gains (the $5,000 that Gizmodo paid him for the phone). Will be interesting to see how it plays out.

D-Wave’s Quantum Computing Demo

As I mentioned earlier, there was a Canadian company that announced it would demonstrate a working quantum computer this week. And demonstrate they did. Yesterday. In California. Then they released this press release, which is frustratingly short on details.

There was some other minor press coverage, including a short article in Scientific American. The nub:

For the demonstration, he says D-Wave operators remotely controlled the quantum computer, housed in Burnaby, British Columbia, from a laptop in California. The quantum computer was given three problems to solve: searching for molecular structures that match a target molecule, creating a complicated seating plan, and filling in Sudoku puzzles.

But experts say the announcement may be a bit – er – premature. Even if the computer were to work as advertised, it still would be nearly 1,000 times too small to solve problems that stump ordinary computers. Moreover, researchers do not know whether it will work at bigger sizes.

A similar tone was in most other articles that didn’t parrot the press release – namely, that the demo was not very impressive. That part is rather unfortunate, although not wholly unexpected – the company did indicate (somewhere) that this was intended to be a proof of concept to gain interest.

So I guess at least for the foreseeable future, the cryptography industry will still be around.

Pretexting, Ethics and Clients

Still catching up a bit – very quick post on the HP “pretexting” thing. As you may recall, HP asserted that its practice of pretexting – i.e. pretending to be someone else to get confidential telephone records – was legal. They were investigated leaks to the press by one of their board members and had resorted to this practice to try and find the leak. I had commented elsewhere long ago when this story first broke that even if it were illegal, very few (if anyone) could consider such actions the least bit ethical.

As most of you know apparently there was some disagreement as to legality and a few folks at HP were charged. Then I read this recent story about how HP was ending its special ties to Larry Sonsini, of the California powerhouse firm of Wilson Sonsini:

Sonsini – famous for decades in these parts – gained national fame in September during HP’s spy scandal hearings in front of Congress. Emails between the lawyer, HP executives and former director Tom Perkins raised serious questions about how sound Sonsini’s advice was around the practice of pretexting. He seemed to indicate that phone record fraud sounded like fair game, after being nudged in that direction by HP’s internal lawyers.

My emphasis. Its unfortunate to hear of something like this. I don’t doubt that he took the time and effort to research the law to come to a reasonable opinion on the matter before advising his client – obviously it was a very grey area of the law. In those circumstances its unfortunate that he didn’t perhaps suggest, notwithstanding the black letter of the law, that it would be unwise do take the course of action they were contemplating. That as good corporate citizens with a significant public profile, that such a practice is not something they should even consider. But then again, maybe he did and they didn’t listen (and of course he would surely have the good sense never to say that in public and embarrass a major client) or maybe he thought that such comments were not for legal counsel to make. Who knows.

The situation is not unfamiliar to many lawyers – particularly when it comes to giving opinions – lawyers are sometimes subjected to pressure to deliver the opinion that a client wants to hear rather than the one they should probably be delivering. By this I’m certainly not suggesting lawyers are delivering bad or incorrect opinions. What I am saying is that there are often grey areas of the law (which tend to be the areas on which legal expertise are sought) and in respect of which opinions can go one of two or more ways. And sometimes, the client will want to hear a certain outcome – for example, in the case of HP, I’m sure they would have liked the comfort to hear from their external counsel that their actions were legal – it would serve as some evidence that they took some degree of diligence and could serve to mitigate consequences if it turned out governmental authorities differed. If he, on the other hand, refused, or proffered a legal opinion that it was fine but qualified with a recommendation not to take such actions, HP likely would have not been very happy with him. And everyone knows what happens when clients aren’t happy.

Its an unfortunate situation to be in. Particuarly in this case, where, at the end of the day, HP still, obviously, isn’t happy with him.