June 30, 2003

Intel v. Hamidi

Intel v. Hamidi verdict is in, let the interesting times begin ...

Hamidi's an ex-Intel employee who has been sending messages critical of Intel to tens of thousands of Intel employees, unsolicited, at their Inte work addresses. Intel sought an injunction against him, won in lower court, and just lost by a narrow 4-3 ruling in California Supreme Court

I've always thought this was a "hard cases make bad law" situation. Most civil-libertarians I know, who aren't dedicated anti-spammers, analyze it in term of a Little Guy being shut-up by A Big Corporation. And indeed, on the facts of it, I rather agree. On the other hand, in general, the law simply doesn't seem to have a "Little Guy vs. Big Corporation" exception in it. There's something to that effect in labor law, but Hamidi's cause itself didn't fall under it. I thought he was going to lose his case.

Well, hail California, they actually found for him, if narrowly To me, it's very interesting how, in my view, the majority basically seemed to want to write "We hold that he's a Little Guy being shut-up by A Big Corporation, and we're going to let him slide here because he's just not doing any real damage":

Intel's e-mail system was equipment designed for speedy communication between employees and the outside world; Hamidi communicated with Intel employees over that system in a manner entirely consistent with its design; and Intel objected not because of an offense against the integrity or dignity of its computers, but because the communications themselves affected employee-recipients in a manner Intel found undesirable.

The problem is, that fits every spammer, in terms of "consistent with its design". Spammers use email systems to deliver email, that's the whole point. The majority then lets Hamidi off the hook, as Intel objected for content (and hence, in practice, making a "Little Guy" exception). There's long sections in their opinion where they seem to try to say "Real spammers, don't try to use this, we don't mean to help you, no, no, no". They're commercial, Hamidi's non-commercial, which is a fair point. But spammers aren't noted for their honesty and strict construction in legal matters.

I suspect California is going to have some very interesting spam cases soon. ("My company must tell your employees about this great new way to improve their marital happiness, because an employee happier at home is happier and more productive at work ...")

And it must be wonderful to have legal backing ...

By Seth Finkelstein | posted in legal , spam | on June 30, 2003 11:19 PM (Infothought permalink) | Followups
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Seth - I think you captured the nuance that a lot of people are missing.

I don't see how this is a victory for free speech. Sure, Hamidi can continue spamming. But Intel is free to block him. Seems like this is the worst possible situation for everybody.

Since it is now practical for anybody to own and operate a printing press on the 'net, we probably ought to be concerned about rights of the property owners too.

Posted by: chip at July 2, 2003 02:07 PM


Nominally, it's a victory for the Little Guy Against The Big Corporation, as Intel can't invoke the power of the state against him (even if Intel can block him).

It's certainly better for him, than had he lost!

In fact, as I thought of it in part, this was a case involving the right of a property owner - but in the reverse. That is, it was a case about when/how a property-owner could not enforce a right. As a general statement, the idea often sends net-people into orbit. But there are some situations, particularly labor-organizing, when a property-owner has to let property be used contrary to the owner's wish.

But I had a hard time figuring out how one could draw a legal line which would include Hamidi, but exclude every other spammer who claimed to have an important, socially-urgent, message. I'm still dubious the court succeeded in doing that.
I think we're going to find out very quickly whether the Hamidi ruling was an outlier or a wedge.

Posted by: Seth Finkelstein at July 5, 2003 12:11 AM

Actually, I think that while you've caught a very important aspect of this case, you've missed how the court deals with the very problem of how to block spam without stopping Hamidi's emails.

While the system is designed to receive electronic messages and route them to employees, the court is very careful to distinguish Hamidi's sporadic and infrequent messages from systematic spamming, and the justices specifically state that this does NOT prevent remedies for unsolicited mail.

There are two grounds to get spammers after this decision. First, and easiest, is to pursue them under the statutes specifically making delivery of unsolicited bulk email unlawful in California.

Second is the court's careful delineation that spam mail presents the realistic possibility of disruption of the email system due to overload of server capacity, significant lag time for legitimate uses, and a general decrease in availablility of the system to employees.

Posted by: Cynthia at July 16, 2003 05:49 PM