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HP faces lawsuit by three News.com reporters

Demands for several million dollars per reporter denied

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Three CNET News.com reporters who were spied on in Hewlett-Packard's methodical investigation to reveal the source of media leaks plan to sue the company for invasion of privacy.

The decision by Dawn Kawamoto, Tom Krazit and Stephen Shankland comes after several months of negotiations with HP to discuss settling the sordid affair, in which investigators on HP's dime secretly obtained phone records of at least nine journalists. In some cases these investigators also obtained the records of the reporters' family members and tracked the reporters while on family outings.

Last month during one settlement discussion, which involved four other reporters who were also tracked by HP snoops, journalists requested amounts equal to several million dollars each, according to an article in today's New York Times. (Under the agreement, most but not all of the money would have been donated to charity.) HP, which has already seen its former chairman and two company lawyers resign over the matter, offered a sum closer to $10,000 per reporter.

"The discussions have not been fruitful to date, and we hope to resolve this without litigation," said Terry Gross, an attorney representing Times reporter John Markoff, his employer and three reporters from BusinessWeek. HP has also admitted to spying on two reporters from the Wall Street Journal. Both the Journal and its two reporters have decided to forgo legal action, as has BusinessWeek.

Whether a reporter or news organization should file lawsuits against companies they cover is a delicate issue that puts the issue of privacy rights at odds with the perceived impartiality of the news organizations that have gotten intertwined through no fault of their own. Demands for several million dollars per reporter strike us as opportunistically excessive, depending on how much is skimmed off the top.

On the other hand, it's not hard to understand why the three News.com reporters are putting up such a fight. HP investigators were so intent on learning the identity of boardroom leakers that they tracked Kawamoto while she vacationed with her young daughter at Disneyland. They also targeted phone records for members of Shankland's family, including his father and wife. In an age where snoops can intercept months' worth of phone calls in a single ill-gotten email, even members of the fourth estate have the right to push back, particularly against entities as powerful as HP.

"It's not about greed," an entry on Groklaw persuasively argues. "It's about altering bad behavior by punishing it, and as a deterrent preventing it from happening again." ®

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