Network: Being called a 'spammer' wasn't in the script

The independent film-maker Peter Hall is suing his ISP after it accused him of sending out junk e-mail.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
IF YOU have never had an Internet account, then you will probably not know the pain of being unable to retrieve your e-mail.

Peter Hall learnt about this particular brand of pain in August 1997. An independent film-maker in New York, he was about to release his first feature film, Delinquent, when he switched on his PC and fired up the modem as usual. But Earthlink Network, his Internet service provider (ISP), was refusing to recognise his password. He called customer services to see what the problem was.

He was passed to a supervisor who brusquely stated that his account with them had been closed and all mail sent to that account would be returned to sender. "You know what you did," the supervisor told him. Hall had no idea, but eventually managed to establish that he was being accused of being a "spammer" - spam being the term for the vast quantities of unsolicited junk e-mail sent over the Net.

Spam is currently seen as a particular problem by service providers. Earthlink is among those ISPs that are now putting their weight behind a bill in the US Congress that will give ISPs the power to sue spammers for up to $25, 000 per day in damages.

Earthlink was accusing Hall of somehow hacking into America Online and sending messages to all of its users. "At this time I didn't even know how to send an e-mail to two people at a time," Hall says. "One minute they were reprimanding me for using technical support too much, the next accusing me of being some kind of master hacker."

Earthlink had made the allegations public, too, listing Hall's e-mail address on three of its newsgroups as part of its policy to name and shame spammers. "This particular person at Earthlink was running regular lists of names of users who he had determined were guilty of spamming," says Hall. "There was a number at the bottom of each page boasting of how many people he had purged. It was like a body count."

After six days of ringing around, Hall finally discovered the source of the problem. Earthlink had been informed of his alleged misdemeanour by its trunk carrier, UUNet Technologies, which tracks messages using digital tags. Unfortunately, there had been some confusion over the tracking number on the spam to AOL and Hall picked up the blame for a message that had originated in Japan.

UUNet admitted its mistake, apologised and informed Earthlink of the error. Earthlink in turn offered Hall six months' free service, though he claims this would only cover a fraction of the cost of the calls, letters and time he had spent sorting out the problem, not to mention the stress put on him or the ignominy of being labelled as a spammer. "I lost an enormous amount of time to this. I was unable to sleep and had to get a prescription for sleeping pills because I got really paranoid," he says. So Hall decided to sue Earthlink. In July his lawyers filed what he describes as a "multi-million dollar lawsuit" against Earthlink in an attempt to recover damages for loss of business, breach of contract and libel. The latter is likely to provide an interesting test of whether the term "spammer" can be seen as a libel and establish case law over the posting of libellous messages on newsgroups. Paul Hoffman, director of the trade organisation Internet Mail Consortium, says: "Calling someone a 'spammer' is clearly an insult in almost any area of today's Internet. It connotes thief, waster of resource, and disrespecter of community standards."

Any finding by a US court could have a knock-on effect in the UK. With the US being seen as some years ahead in use of the Internet, a judicial decision is likely to have at least a persuasive influence over any similar cases here. Kirsten Kappos, Earthlink's vice-president for corporate communications, says the company intends to "aggressively defend" itself and continue its fight against spammers. She believes Hall was merely the victim of a mistake and that Earthlink has done all it can to right the situation.

Hall sees it somewhat differently. He calls their apology "incredibly grudging" and claims he still suffers from headaches, anxiety and facial spasms as a result of the experience. His sense of humour is still intact, though, as he laughs off the suggestion that this experience could provide the basis for his next script. "I'm thinking it might be a sub-element in a script that I'm trying to devise," he says. "But I wouldn't want to dwell on it."

Information on Peter Hall's case is at