Friday, January 1, 1999

Is email spam a form of trespass?


By Victor Woodward

A recent ruling in favor of Intel Corporation highlights the increasing threats of spam in the workplace. The definition of spam has been broadened, as recently illustrated when Sacramento Judge John R. Lewis ordered Intel ex-employee Ken Hamidi to stop sending mass email messages to Intel. Hamidi, who was fired from Intel in 1995, sent email "critical of the Santa Clara chip giant to roughly 30,000 of its employees," according to an article by Jonathan Rabinovitz in the San Jose Mercury News on December 4, 1998.

Spam -- or unsolicited email -- is a growing concern in the workplace. According to recent testimony provided by the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email to the United States Senate Communications Subcommittee, some companies estimate that upwards of 30% of their daily email traffic is unwanted. A recent survey conducted by World Research reports that 700 of 1,000 respondents want junk email regulated.

The case protecting Intel emphasizes the fact that spam can come in many forms -- it's not limited to commercial solicitations.

According to Linda E. Shostak, a lawyer representing Intel, any kind of spam is a form of trespassing. "Just because there's now the technology that allows you to get inside, doesn't mean you can go inside there," Shostak said.

The most recent email sent by Hamidi accused Intel of forcing out older workers and planning layoffs. It was one of many he sent over the past two years. "Our employees don't want to get these messages, so we finally took the action we needed to take," said Coeta Chambers, a lawyer with Intel's human resources department.

[As I think about this, there is a secondary issue: where did he get the list? Obviously, he might have used an internal list server that sent mail to Intel employees. But after his first "episode", why wasn't his mail juried or moderated prior to allowing it corporation-wide distribution? Some of this can be a technical solution, some a management solution, and only part requires legal measures. -- DG]

The Intel case is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of spam issues. Companies must protect themselves against individuals whose emailed messages can clog the network, increase Internet costs and reduce employee morale and productivity. Equally important, companies are increasingly legally liable for information passing through company networks.

"Sure," you say, "but is this really something I should be worried about?"

It is. Spam isn't just a mass of commercial email clogging your in-box, it's any unsolicited mail -- just ask the courts. The implications for Domino users and administrators is twofold First, the likelihood that you'll be harassed by spam of one kind or another is high, with the effect of decreasing your productivity and increasing the amount of infoglut on your PC and network. Second, your company may be liable for spam that originates with one of your colleagues or employees.