[eff-austin] Wired: Ex-Intel Coder Wins E-Mail Case (fwd)
ravage at einstein.ssz.com
Tue Jul 1 04:36:02 PDT 2003
---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Mon, 30 Jun 2003 23:58:14 -0700 (PDT)
From: Carl Webb <webbcarl at hotmail.com>
To: eff-austin at effaustin.org, tlc-discuss at lists.cwrl.utexas.edu
Subject: [eff-austin] Wired: Ex-Intel Coder Wins E-Mail Case
Ex-Intel Coder Wins E-Mail Case
By Ryan Singel
Sending e-mails to a company's employees, even when those messages are critical of the company, can't be considered trespassing, according to a decision released Monday by California's Supreme Court.
In a 4-3 ruling applauded by free speech advocates, the court overturned a Court of Appeals decision that barred Ken Hamidi, a disgruntled former Intel employee, from e-mailing his former co-workers at the chipmaker.
"The court understood that this case is about communication," said Lee Tien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed a friend of the court brief on Hamidi's behalf. "If the decision had gone the other way, the Internet's fundamental structure -- where everyone is connected to everyone -- would have been compromised. It would have Balkanized the Internet."
Hamidi, who was fired in 1996 by Intel, sent a series of six e-mails to 30,000 Intel employees during the late 1990s. The messages criticized the company's labor practices, asking employees to join an anti-Intel group and urging them to look for jobs elsewhere.
Intel sought a court order to stop the campaign, arguing that Hamidi's e-mails disrupted its workplace and trespassed on its network.
The California Superior Court agreed with Intel in 1998, ordering Hamidi to stop sending e-mails. Hamidi appealed the decision, but in 2001, the Court of Appeals upheld the ruling that Hamidi was trespassing on Intel's servers.
The lower courts justified the injunction against Hamidi based on the common law provision known as "trespass to chattels," which allows property owners to sue someone who misuses, but does not steal, their property.
The Court of Appeals ruling held that meddling with another person's property was enough to warrant an injunction.
The state Supreme Court rejected the appeals court's reasoning, saying that Hamidi's e-mails weren't trespassing since they didn't actually disrupt Intel's servers. The court declared in its majority opinion that "Hamidi did nothing but use the e-mail system for its intended purpose -- to communicate with employees."
The court added, "The system worked as designed, delivering the messages without any physical or functional harm or disruption. These occasional transmissions cannot reasonably be viewed as impairing the quality or value of Intel's computer system."
Hamidi's lawyers and supporters feared that if the lower court's decision had stood, individuals could be sued for hyperlinking to a Web page or sending a single unwanted e-mail.
"The Court has soundly rejected the invitation to create a new rule with the potential to cripple the Internet as a network," said Gregory Lastowka, one of Hamidi's attorneys. "If a plaintiff wants to bring a claim of trespass to chattel, there must be some proof of damage to the communications equipment."
Intel argued that the case was about private property, not free speech.
Intel hasn't decided whether to appeal the ruling, said Chuck Mulloy, a company spokesman.
"We're disappointed with the ruling," said Mulloy. "But we are studying the ruling to assess what options we have if Mr. Hamidi resumes his spamming of Intel."
The carefully worded decision does not prevent companies from suing spammers for overloading their servers.
"The functional burden on Intel's computers, or the cost in time to individual recipients, of receiving Hamidi's occasional advocacy messages cannot be compared to the burdens and costs caused ISPs and their customers by the ever-rising deluge of commercial e-mail," according to the court.
The court also said that Intel couldn't stop Hamidi by arguing that the e-mails disrupted the workplace and affected productivity, writing that Intel could not "assert a property interest in its employees' time."
The court did not, however, decide that the First Amendment required Intel to let Hamidi's e-mails reach its employees' mailboxes.
After Hamidi's first mass e-mail, Intel engineers added mail filters that blocked Hamidi's missives based on their content and IP address. Hamidi evaded some of those filters by using different computers and scrambling words in the e-mails to avoid keyword filters.
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