One Small Step for Spam

One giant leap for people who hate it

9:38 AM -- Gordon Dick, an electronic marketing specialist who lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, was sick of getting spam in his mailbox. So when he received an unsolicited email ad from U.K. ISP Transcom at the beginning of last year, he decided to do something about it.

He sued 'em.

And last week, after a lawsuit that dragged out more than a year, Dick finally won his case. Edinburgh's Sheriff Court, a small claims court, ordered Transcom to pay Dick 750 pounds -- about $1,445 -- plus 619 pounds in court costs.

The decision may seem like small potatoes -- or in this case, haggis -- but it might suggest a victory for U.K. anti-spam laws and a rough road for spammers ahead. Transcom's message was sent to approximately 41,000 people -- can you imagine the effect if all of those users filed lawsuits -- and won?.

The decision raises some eyebrows for several reasons. First, it's an actual enforcement of anti-spam laws, which have been on the books in both the U.K. and the U.S. for years but are seldom enforced. If spammers see that courts are willing to make judgments against companies that send unsolicited email, they might just think twice about sending them in the future.

Second, this ruling was made against a company for sending a single message. Email security vendor Postini said yesterday that it blocked more than 1 billion spam messages in February, and that about 93 percent of the email it handles is spam. If customers even acted on 1 percent of that spam, and received judgments similar to Dick's, the impact could be enormous.

Third, Dick won his case (representing himself, no less) despite the fact that he did not prove that the spam had done him any financial harm. He argued that Transcom had taken his email address from an Internet forum without his consent, violating the European Union Data Protection Act. This means that courts may be willing to rule against spammers not only for the messages they send out, but for the methods they use to collect the lists -- even if the victim is more annoyed than harmed.

Gordon Dick's case may be an anomaly. There have been a few other successful complaints filed under U.K. anti-spam laws, including a 300-pound judgment for a British complainant in 2005 and a 45,000-pound settlement between Microsoft and a spammer two years ago. Neither one of those cases set off a wave of lawsuits.

But with several victories in the courts, you have to figure that spam victims -- and lawyers -- may soon begin to smell blood in the water. The courts and legislators would love nothing more than to be the heroes that stopped spam. And while none of these cases might do anything to stop the average Russian spammer, they could force legitimate companies to more carefully consider what they're sending -- and whom they are sending it to.

— Tim Wilson, Site Editor, Dark Reading