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Intel can't block ex-worker's e-mail

California's high court says thousands of e-mails sent by a former worker at the chip giant to employees aren't considered trespassing.

Setting a new precedent in Internet law, the California Supreme Court ruled Monday that an ex-Intel worker did not trespass on company computer systems when he e-mailed thousands of messages critical of his former employer to staffers at work.

The 4-3 decision hands Ken Hamidi a victory in his six-year dispute with the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chip giant and generally curtails the ability of employers to police their e-mail systems.

Legal experts said the decision could have wide-reaching effects on a growing number of cases that rely on California's "trespass to chattels" law to prohibit people from unauthorized use of computer systems.

"This is clearly one of the most important cyberlaw decisions of the year, if not the decade, because it is removing what could have been a serious impediment to the free flow of information on the Internet," said Dave Kramer, partner at the law firm Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati. "For those looking for ways to prevent Internet abuse, this decision will not be welcome because it limits one of the weapons available to combat it."

The doctrine of trespass to chattels states that one may not use the property of another in such a way as to harm that property or interfere with the owners' use and enjoyment of it. The theory has been used to attack junk e-mailers who take over computer systems to deliver spam as well as data "scrapers" who pull information such as product prices from Web sites.

The court said its ruling is narrow and should not be applied directly to spam-related cases. Nevertheless, the case raises the bar for companies seeking to block unauthorized use of their computers, saying that plaintiffs must prove harm or damage to the property, which can be more difficult than simply showing abuse in the use of that property.

Intel, for example, claimed that Hamidi's mass e-mails caused harm through loss of employee productivity, a claim that was rejected in Monday's decision.

"After reviewing the decisions analyzing unauthorized electronic contact with computer systems as potential trespasses to chattels," the court wrote, "we conclude that under California law the tort does not encompass, and should not be extended to encompass, an electronic communication that neither damages the recipient computer system nor impairs its functioning."

Although Hamidi raised a free-speech defense, the court did not issue an opinion on the constitutional issues, but ruled narrowly on the question of whether sending the unwanted e-mail constituted trespassing.

The scope of the ruling is limited to California. But Wilson Sonsini's Kramer said he expects it could reach farther, as other states may now be inclined to follow this interpretation of the law.

An e-mail blitz
The dispute between Intel and Kourosh Kenneth Hamidi started six years ago when Intel sued Hamidi after he blasted its e-mail system with thousands of messages accusing the company of unfair labor practices. Intel claimed Hamidi was trespassing on its property by sending a barrage of unwanted e-mail to its servers.

Hamidi, who was fired by Intel in 1996, had landed the support of free-speech activists and law professors, who argue that the content of Hamidi's e-mail message was the equivalent of watercooler gossip and that he had a right to express his opinions about the company via e-mail.

In March, Intel had asked the California Supreme Court to uphold an earlier legal ruling that found Hamidi had trespassed on the company's servers by sending thousands of unwanted e-mails to staff at work, dating back to 1996. Hamidi, who alleged unfair labor practices at the chip giant in the e-mail, asked that the decision be overturned, arguing that he was merely exercising his First Amendment rights.

Chuck Mulloy, an Intel spokesman, said the company was "disappointed in the court's decision. We're studying the opinion to assess our options in the event that Hamidi resumes spamming against Intel."

Hamidi wrote via e-mail to CNET that he was delighted with the decision and plans to start up communication with Intel employees again after his five-year ban.

"Obviously this case was and is way beyond me and or my personal interest. This is a case of people vs. corporations, which tested out (the) constitution and our judicial system," Hamidi wrote. "Again I'll cherish my freedoms and will exercise them responsibly and peacefully. I'll start sending informative and educational e-mails to Intel employees on my e-mail list" of 68,000.