- Telecommunications provider Sprint is embroiled in a legal battle over unsolicited email allegedly sent out by the company in Utah, where state law prohibits spam.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of resident Terry Gillman of Murray, Utah, charges Sprint with issuing unsolicited commercial email without permission of the recipients and without an ongoing business relationship.
Utah's "Unsolicited Commercial E-mail Act," which bans businesses from sending unsolicited email, known as spam, went into effect May 6. The law says that commercial email may be sent legally as an advertisement if it includes the characters "ADV:" at the beginning of the subject line in the email. With such labelling in the subject line, a recipient can choose not to view the message on its face or can set up email filtering software to automatically delete such messages.
Despite the new law, according to the plaintiff, Sprint sent out the messages, which included offers for Sprint telephone service. The offer cited in the case, made within days of the law going into effect, was for a free combination camera/webcam/voice recorder device that was offered as a gift to customers who sign up for the "Sprint Nickel Nights Online" telephone service. The message did not include "ADV:" in the subject line, according to the plaintiff.
Sprint spokesman Travis Sowders says the company would not comment on pending litigation. However, in a written legal response to the plaintiff, Sprint attorneys called Utah's law "void on its face" because it violates the US Constitution, which guarantees free speech, due process and free commerce. Sprint's statement denies that unauthorised emails were sent and says that any unsolicited emails that were allegedly received were "transmitted accidentally and/or after implementation of reasonable measures" to prevent them.
Under Utah's new law, violations are punishable by fines of $US10 per illegal commercial email sent, up to a maximum of $US25,000 per day that the violations occur. The fines or actual damages are awarded to the plaintiffs, under the law.
The suit has been filed as a class-action lawsuit to bring in other affected plaintiffs.
Denver Snuffer, an attorney representing Gillman, says the suit was filed because unsolicited emails are an unfair burden on his client's time.
Gillman, who is in his mid-20s, works for a collection agency but doesn't own a computer. He has access to email at work, in libraries and in coffee shops, Snuffer says. The problem is that such access is often with strict time limits, which is then wasted poring through unsolicited commercial emails.
Snuffer says Gillman was pushed to the brink of the suit when he had five minutes to access his email one day and spent the first four minutes going through 40 spam messages. He had time to read only one of the two messages he had received from friends that day, Snuffer says.
"This is supposed to be a speedy, easy way for people to communicate," Snuffer says. "To be able to use it, we need to do something to [get] the junk out, and the interference with commerce that spam constitutes."
Jason Catlett, president of Junkbusters, a Green Brook, New Jersey-based privacy group, says laws such as Utah's are fairly common, but they fall short of actually banning unauthorised commercial spam from being sent out.
"State laws should prohibit spamming period," Catlett says, "not merely require labelling. That's an incidental public policy move."
The lawsuit, if ultimately successful, bears watching, he says. "If Sprint was really spamming, then they deserve to be caught and taken to task for it," he says.
At a hearing last week, a motion by Sprint to seize any hard drives used by Gillman to preserve them as evidence in the case was rejected by a Salt Lake City court judge, Snuffer says.