Court victory paves the way for e-mail spam to be binned

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The Independent Online

The tide could be turning against spam, the unwanted e-mail bombardment, that has become one of the greatest irritations of modern times.

In a legal case that could have wide ranging implications, an internet marketing firm has been forced to pay damages for sending out unwanted e-mail adverts.

In what is believed to be the first action of its kind under a new European law, an internet specialist has successfully claimed damages from a sender of bulk e-mails. The threat of further legal action may bring relief to the millions of people whose e-mails are clogged daily with unwanted messages.

Spam is estimated to account for more than 65 per cent of all global e-mail traffic, an increase of about a quarter since February 2003. AOL, the world's biggest internet provider, blocks over a billion spam mails a day.

But in an apparent blow against spammers a county court judge in Colchester has ruled against a Scottish-based firm that sends out targeted but un-solicited e-mail adverts and promotions. The company, based in Stirlingshire, boasts it offers "electronic direct marketing" but it ran in to trouble when it sent unwanted material to Nigel Roberts, a Channel Islands-based businessman who runs an internet business.

Three years ago the EU passed an anti-spam law - the Directive on Privacy and Electronic Communications - which gave individuals the right to fight the growing number of unwanted e-mail by allowing them to claim damages.

When Mr Roberts, 37, received unwanted e-mail adverts for a contract car firm and a fax broadcasting business, he took action. He said: "The new law gives anyone who is spammed the right to seek damages against the originators of the unwanted e-mail, fax or text message.

"I wrote to the company asking for an apology and claiming damages under Regulation 30 of the privacy regulations.

"I also asked under the Data Protection Act for details of the data that the company had obtained and stored about me - and I particularly wanted to know who had supplied them with my e-mail address. When they declined to give the information or make any offer, I issued a claim against them in England, where they are incorporated, under the anti-spam laws."

The company filed an acknowledgement of the claim at the county court in Colchester but did not defend it, said Mr Roberts. After a judge ruled in favour of Mr Roberts the firm has agreed an out-of-court settlement in which they will pay him damages of £270 and his £30 claim fee.

Mr Roberts launched his action in the small claims court so was limited to the amount of damages he could expect. But if action is taken in higher courts, much larger sums could be awarded, he believes.

Mr Roberts said: "This case does provide a guideline when it comes to successfully claiming damages from spammers. It also shows that wherever they are they can be held responsible for sending spam to anyone living in a British Isles jurisdiction. This may be a tiny victory but perhaps now spammers will begin to realise that people don't have to put up with their e-mail inboxes being filled with unwanted junk."