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Tech Industry

Law school serves spam as main course

The John Marshall Law School in Chicago plans what colleagues agree may be the first law school course of its kind--one devoted entirely to spam.

Law students at Chicago's John Marshall Law School are getting a new dose of spam--on their course schedule.

The spam serving comes courtesy of John Marshall associate professor David Sorkin, who's offering what he and his peers say may be the first law school course devoted to the subject of unsolicited commercial e-mail.

"This seminar will investigate legal and policy issues raised by e-mail marketing and spam," Sorkin wrote in describing the summer seminar, titled "Current Topics in Information Technology Law: Regulation of Spam and E-mail Marketing." "Topics to be addressed include litigation and legislation involving spam and e-mail marketing; the application of tort law and other traditional doctrines to spam; concerns related to constitutionality, jurisdiction, extraterritoriality, privacy, content and public policy; regulatory perspectives; issues faced by Internet service providers and legitimate e-mail marketers; legal aspects of blacklisting and other antispam measures; and other relevant issues."

Sorkin, who in 1995 taught one of the first courses devoted to Internet law and who maintains a Web repository of passed and pending spam laws, has long touted the applicability of traditional law to the Internet. He has warned against legislation drafted specifically for online contexts, saying that new spam bills, in particular, have the potential to worsen the problem they're designed to alleviate.

Sorkin's summer students will be able to bone up on a fresh batch of spam legislation. At the federal level, a bill gathering steam on Capitol Hill would impose steep fines and prison terms on spammers. House and Senate members are in the process of drafting several other bills.

At the state level, the California Senate this season advanced its own antispam legislation. And major Internet corporations, including Microsoft, Yahoo and AOL Time Warner, have stepped up their antispam efforts on the litigation, legislation and education fronts.

In an e-mail exchange, Sorkin said his course was "probably" the first law school seminar focused on spam, an assertion one colleague at a competing law school backed up.

"Yes, that would be a first," said Eric Goldman, an assistant professor at Marquette University Law School in Milwaukee, Wis. "It looks like a nicely constructed course. David is one of the leading academics on the spam topic."

As an indication of how fast the spam law landscape is developing, some documents on the course's preliminary syllabus are less than a few weeks old, including the Direct Marketing Association's Anti-Spam Working Strategy and the House's Reduction in Distribution of Spam Act of 2003.