Ex-Intel worker wins e-mail case on appeal

In a closely watched case that's testing the boundaries of law governing cyberspace, California's highest court on Monday overturned a lower court's ruling and decided that former Intel employee Kourosh Kenneth Hamidi did not trespass on Intel's IT systems by sending mass e-mail messages critical of the company to its employees.

After leaving Intel, Hamidi helped form FACE (Former and Current Employees) Intel, a group that bitterly objects to and hopes to reform Intel's personnel practices. On behalf of FACE Intel, Hamidi sent to Intel employees six mass e-mail messages containing negative claims about the company, reaching as many as 35,000 people. Intel sued to prevent Hamidi from continuing his e-mail campaign and in November 1998 won an injunction against him. The case eventually reached the California Supreme Court, which delivered Monday's ruling.

Intel, based in Santa Clara, California, grounded its objections in a claim that Hamidi committed "trespass to chattels," an antiquated law revived for use in several cyberspace cases that precludes the use of a plaintiff's personal property to cause injury to the plaintiff. Several companies have used the statute to prevent spammers and Web data collection agents called "bots" from accessing their servers. The companies have argued that those actions impair the affected IT systems and cause economic harm.

Because Hamidi did not hack into Intel's systems to send his messages, and because he removed any recipients who asked not to be contacted again, the court decided that he "did nothing but use the e-mail system for its intended purpose -- to communicate with employees," wrote Justice Kathryn Werdegar, in the court's majority opinion.

The court emphasized in its 4-3 decision that the distinction between Hamidi's case and other, superficially similar spam cases is that Intel objected to Hamidi's e-mail messages because of their content, not their affect on the company's IT systems.

"Intel's position represents a further extension of the trespass to chattels tort, fictionally recharacterizing the allegedly injurious effect of a communication's contents on recipients as an impairment to the device which transmitted the message," according to the majority opinion. "While unwelcome communications, electronic or otherwise, can cause a variety of injuries to economic relations, reputation and emotions, those interests are protected by other branches of tort law."

Organizations including the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union filed briefs in the case that supported Hamidi, while parties including the U.S. Internet Service Provider Association and Civil Justice Association of California submitted briefs supporting Intel.

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