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State wins case against deceptive spammer

Saturday, September 14, 2002


Washington, the first state to take a legal stand against sending
misleading, unwanted e-mail, won its first case yesterday, against a
prolific spammer who flooded the state's computers with advertising
several years ago. A King County Superior Court judge declared a
summary judgment against Jason Heckel, a Salem, Ore., businessman,
finding that he violated the state's anti-spam law. The judge ruled
that a civil trial, which was weeks away, wouldn't be needed because
the state had proved its case. The law, which does not ban all
unsolicited commercial e-mail, makes it illegal to send an e-mail to
people in Washington that contains deceptive subject lines, uses a
bogus return address or uses a third party's domain name without
permission. "This is a great victory for Washington consumers,"
Attorney General Christine Gregoire said yesterday. "Deceptive e-mails
are more than just a nuisance, they rob consumers and businesses of
money and time." The state sued Heckel four years ago, after he sent
out millions of e-mails advertising a product he developed. Among
other things, consumers were unable to reply to the e-mail. Heckel's
attorney, Dale Crandall, said that his client would appeal. "It is not
a settled issue yet whether states will be allowed to do this,"
Crandall said. Others, however, disagree. By winning yesterday's case,
Washington has become the first state to test its anti-spam law
through the courts and finally win a judgment, said John Mozena of the
Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail, an Internet-based
advocacy group of anti-spam organizations around the world.
"Hopefully, it will dissuade spammers from sending their messages to
Washington state residents," Mozena said, adding that other states,
such as California, are now testing their anti-spam laws in the
courts. After the Washington Legislature approved the anti-spam law in
March 1998, other states began to follow. Today 26 states have some
kind of law restricting unsolicited e-mail. It may take years to
determine how effective those laws are. The public has been slow to
realize that spam can be illegal, said Ethan Ackerman, a research
associate at the Center for Law, Commerce and Technology and the
University of Washington Law School. "Whoever invented the delete key
did a lot more than anyone who ever drafted a law against unsolicited
e-mail," Ackerman said. "But it has to start somewhere." Yesterday's
victory was long in coming for Gregoire's office. The attorney general
first sued the Oregon spammer in 1998, shortly after lawmakers
approved the state law. Gregoire accused Heckel of sending millions of
e-mails advertising a brochure he developed called "How to Profit From
the Internet," for sale for $39.95. Heckel's messages began with the
subject lines, "Did I get the right e-mail address?" and "For your
review--HANDS OFF!" And when consumers tried to reply to the e-mail,
the message came back as undeliverable. But the state said he sold 30
to 50 brochures a month. When the case was first heard in 2000, a
Superior Court judge threw it out, saying that the state's anti-spam
law was unconstitutional. When that happened, Washington's case
against Heckel attracted the attention of regulators and policymakers
around the world. Then last year, the Washington State Supreme Court
upheld the law, finding that the only burden the rule "places on
spammers is the requirement of truthfulness." The U.S. Supreme Court
later declined to hear Heckel's appeal. A trial was scheduled for
Sept. 30. But at a hearing yesterday morning, King County Superior
Court Judge Douglas North said that the facts were not in dispute:
Heckel violated all three provisions of Washington's anti-spam law.
North will hold a hearing later this year to set the amount of damages
he will order Heckel to pay the state. Until yesterday, the case had
been through a series of hearings and appeals. Legal scholars have
opined on both sides in the country's most respected journals. Heckel
finds a few allies in those, who believe that the Internet must be regulated
uniformly and not by the different laws of several states. "Right now it's a
bunch of states making their own laws about how people in other states
can do business," Crandall, his attorney, said. "It's a profoundly
interesting case about whether the government can regulate business on
the Internet, or at least regulate equally."