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Ex-Intel worker wins e-mail case on appeal

A US court has decided that former Intel employee Kourosh Kenneth Hamidi did not trespass on Intel's IT systems by sending mass e-mail messages about the company to its employees.

After leaving Intel, Hamidi helped form Face (Former and Current Employees) Intel, a group which bitterly objects to and hopes to reform Intel's personnel practices.

On behalf of Face Intel, Hamidi sent six mass e-mail messages to Intel employees 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.

Intel grounded its objections in a claim that Hamidi committed "trespass to chattels", an antiquated law revived for use in several cyberspace cases which 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.

The court emphasised 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 effect on the company's IT systems.

"Intel's position represents a further extension of the trespass to chattels tort, fictionally recharacterising 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." 

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

Stacy Cowley writes for IDG News Service


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