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Court halts ex-employee's mass e-mails

An appeals court rules that an ex-Intel employee cannot send e-mail to thousands of former colleagues using company distribution lists, a decision that's seen as a coup for anti-spam advocates.

An ex-Intel employee cannot send e-mail to thousands of former colleagues using company distribution lists, a state appellate court has ruled.

In a 2-1 decision, California's 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento on Tuesday upheld an injunction against Kourosh Kenneth Hamidi, holding that e-mail he sent over the objections of the company to Intel's staff was an illegal "trespass."

The decision is seen as a coup for anti-spam advocates, who say property owners should have the right to prevent outsiders from sending unwanted e-mail to their systems. But civil libertarians counter that the ruling establishes a dangerous precedent that threatens to put a muzzle on legitimate e-mail senders.

"If left standing, this ruling effectively breaks the Internet," said Cindy Cohn, legal director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which represented Hamidi on appeal. "Anyone who sends e-mail messages after having been told not to could risk a lawsuit from recipients."

Hamidi, fired from Intel in 1996, sent six disgruntled e-mails to Intel's staff mailing list over a two-year period. Intel asked him to stop sending the e-mail; he refused, and the chipmaker filed a complaint in 1998.

Intel's case was based on a little-used legal theory called trespass to chattels, or trespass to legal property. Under that legal doctrine, the plaintiff must establish that personal property was harmed. In this case, the court ruled that Hamidi caused harm to Intel's property by sending e-mails to up to 35,000 employees and causing the company and its staff time and effort to address the mail.

Lawyers defending Hamidi say the case is a vast expansion of the legal theory to include a restriction on speech via e-mail.

"There was absolutely no harm done to Intel's computer system; they were just unhappy with the messages and had to spend time answering employees' questions that were generated by the message," said Ann Brick, counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which is planning to appeal the case to the California Supreme Court. "The decision could have far-reaching effects for everyone's ability to communicate using e-mail."

Lawyers for Intel could not be immediately reached for comment.

Trespass to chattels is a legal theory that has been used successfully before--for example, in early spam cases involving Internet service providers America Online and CompuServe. In 1997, AOL won an injunction against Cyber Promotions on the basis that bulk unsolicited e-mail burdened its computer system.

Dave Kramer, an attorney at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, defended CompuServe in a similar case in 1997. He said the court's recent decision elevates the problem of spam for companies and gives them ammunition to fight unwanted e-mailers.

"I think the court got it right. Intel has a right to decide how its private property is used," Kramer said. "Certainly the company that is providing a service to tens of thousands of employees should be able to say, 'Leave my employees alone.'"