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Judge Rules That I Own Slashdot 386

Posted by CmdrTaco
from the now-wait-a-minute dept.
Bennett Haselton wrote in with this weeks amusing and shocking story of high finance, judicial discretion, and oh so much more... he writes "People still ask me if I make enough money suing spammers in Small Claims court to make it worthwhile. I say: What about the entertainment value? Recently I received an e-mail with the subject line: 'Reminder: Link exchange with your site' Finally, I thought, someone else who agrees that I'm carrying the site's entire success on my shoulders. I even hurried off to check the registration of the domain to see if they had made the transfer official in honor of my contributions, but apparently the domain is still being squatted by some outfit calling itself "SourceForge"." I'm shocked that a legitimate businessman would make such an error. Read on to see what Bennett does about it.

So I returned to the e-mail, which began, "Dear Webmaster". Scrolling through it, I found the part that I was looking for (I munged the sender's URL slightly, to avoid crashing the poor guy's server from all the traffic I'm sure he's already getting):

As you know, reciprocal linking benefits both of us by raising our search rankings and generating more traffic to both of our sites. Please post a link to my site as follows:

Title: Work At Home Business Opportunities | Online Career Training
Description: Your Source, and Resource for starting a Home Business, or Growing the One You're In.

Of course I am always interested in growing the business that I'm in, which is why I served him with papers a few days later under RCW 19.190, the Washington anti-spam law which prohibits e-mails with a "false or misleading subject line".

OK, technically at this point suing spammers in Small Claims is really more of a hobby. I still think that the real future of spammer-suing is in federal court, if you can amass enough damages against a particular company to reach the threshold of $75,000 to bring a federal lawsuit. The idea is not to go after the bottom-feeders who are sending the actual spams from their Mom's basement, but to follow the money and see who is ultimately buying the leads. You can respond to mortgage spams by entering a drop-box phone number and a made-up name, waiting to see who calls you, and then telling them that the person who sold them that lead is generating them illegally and that they shouldn't buy leads from them any more. Next I'll probably try responding to some ads for pills or other shady products by using a temporary one-time-use credit card number that's only authorized up to the amount of the purchase, to see which companies are doing the sales on the back end. (The checkout forms for those pill-hawking pages rarely say the name of the company that will end up on your statement, but the charge on your card has to be from someone.) The only types of spam I can think of where "following the money" wouldn't work, would be pump-and-dump stock spams -- in that case, the beneficiary could be anyone holding stock in the company. The SEC can freeze trading in stocks that are promoted in pump-and-dump but it's still no guarantee of catching the guilty party -- even someone who buys a lot of the company might just be an "innocent" third party who knows it's a scam but hopes to cash in on the price spike (although FAQs suggest that this strategy doesn't work). But for other types of spam, it's already been well documented how you can track it to the financiers without even trying to identify the actual person who pressed "Send".

Of course there's another reason why you'd rather be in federal court. Small Claims anti-spammer cases may not shed a lot of light on the economics behind spam, but they are instructive for what to expect if you ever appear before a District Court judge for any other reason. In this trial, heard by Judge Judith Eiler on November 5, 2007, the defendant telephoned in to the court hearing and said several times that this was a "personal e-mail from me to him" and should be exempt from the anti-spam laws. I said that I didn't think an e-mail with the subject "Link exchange with your site" could be considered "personal" since nobody who knew me would think that was my website, and in any case, personal e-mails tend not to start with "Dear Webmaster". But Judge Eiler ruled that this was a personal e-mail after all:

"Um, spam, these are anti-spam laws, which imply that they are mail just sent out in huge bulks, which would be the antithesis of a personal e-mail. And here he puts his name, in fact this is the person that you directly sued rather than somebody that's in a corporation or a company. The court does think that there's some indication that this is a personal-type e-mail. While it may have gone out to a number of people, it doesn't have quite the earmarks."
mp3 here

Below is a copy of the e-mail that the judge was holding when she ruled that it "didn't have the earmarks" of a bulk e-mail:

To: Subject: Reminder: Link exchange with your site X-PHP-Script: for Date: Wed, 12 Sep 2007 09:34:26 -0400 From: Roderick Eash Reply-to: Message-ID: X-Priority: 3 X-Mailer: PHPMailer [version 1.72] Errors-To: MIME-Version: 1.0 Content-Type: multipart/alternative; boundary="b1_b43cabef83c9f9123db7a78ef9a73362" Dear Webmaster, My name is Roderick Eash, and I run the web site Work At Home Business Opportunities | Online Career Training: The other day I wrote you to let you know I'm very interested in exchanging links. I'm sending this reminder in case you didn't receive my first letter. I've gone ahead and posted a link to your site, on this page: As you know, reciprocal linking benefits both of us by raising our search rankings and generating more traffic to both of our sites. Please post a link to my site as follows: Title: Work At Home Business Opportunities | Online Career Training URL: Description: Your Source, and Resource for starting a Home Business, or Growing the One You're In. Once you've posted the link, let me know the URL of the page that it's on, by entering it in this form: You can also use that form to make changes to the text of the link to your site, if you'd like. Thank you very much, Roderick Eash

Every time I write about a spam case, I swear it's the last time. I wonder if judges read that and say to each other, "I'll bet we can get him to do it again." With this ruling, if the subject line "Link exchange with your site" is not "false or misleading", does that mean I can claim as my site after all?

So I don't think that suing spammers in Small Claims will make much difference in the long run. But the odds are that you might have a case come before a Distict Court judge at some point in your life. Consider that the same type of judge who thought the message above was a "personal e-mail", might someday be deciding whether you're responsible for $10,000 in damage to someone's car, or whether there is proof beyond a reasonable doubt that you were guilty of rape, or whether you get to keep custody of your child. There's no joke here, just something I thought you should keep in mind.

So I'm hardly a victim, but it could have been worse; I could have gotten a spam -- excuse me, a personal e-mail -- with a subject like "Your g1rl says you n3ed a b1gger m3mber". I would have been pissed if the judge had ruled that subject line was not misleading.

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Judge Rules That I Own Slashdot

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  • by paladinwannabe2 (889776) on Monday November 19, 2007 @01:16PM (#21409147)
    My understanding is that Bennett Haselton sues people who spam him as a hobby. His stories are entertaining and show some of the difficulties in implementing a legislative solution to Spam- many judges he deals with would rather discard the case on some technicality than enforce the law. It's nice to see people standing up for themselves, even when they'd probably be better off ignoring it.

    What happened in this particular case is some spammer claimed he owned Slashdot, he sued the spammer, and lost.
  • Cliffnotes Version (Score:4, Informative)

    by RealityThreek (534082) on Monday November 19, 2007 @01:17PM (#21409169)
    So, like, this guy got a spam email that said "Hello Slashdot webmaster". He sued the spammer in small claims court. The judge threw it out because this was a personal email from the spammer to the "webmaster of Slashdot". Hilarity ensued. Also there was some point about federal courts inserted in there to make it more confusing. And they all lived happily ever after.
  • by Aeron65432 (805385) <> on Monday November 19, 2007 @01:17PM (#21409173) Homepage
    It's pretty simple....I don't understand why you are confused.

    A guy, mistakenly taken as the admin of /. happens to have free time and money on his hands. (Not trolling, a fact) He receives a spam e-mail that offers to boost traffic to his website. (which /. doesn't really have a problem with) He finds a Washington State law that says the subject line from this spam e-mail is misleading, takes the guy to small claims court, and the judge who clearly doesn't understand the word "spam" in the e-aspect rules that it was a personal communication and not spam, therefore not illegal. It was a simple read that highlighted a guy's quest to fight spammers (This is not his first time) and also showed the more important continuing fact that judges in this country are woefully uneducated when it comes to the internet. But at least this judge has heard of email before. []

  • by Raul654 (453029) on Monday November 19, 2007 @01:17PM (#21409177) Homepage
    A lot of people here in the comments are saying they can't make heads or tails of this summary, so I'll summarize it:
    (1) Bennet, a guy who makes a hobby of suing spammers, gets an email with the subject line 'Reminder: Link exchange with your site [] offering a link exchance with his website.
    (2) He sues spammer under Washington state laws against misleading commercial email
    (3) The spammer argues in court that it's a personal email. Bennet argues that nobody who knows him would think he owned slashdot, and that therefore it is not personal. Judge rules in favor of spammer, saying that the email was a "personal email" and thus does not qualify under the law. An alternative reading of said ruling could imply that he (Bennet) owns slashdot.

    Hope that clears things up for everyone.
  • by Raul654 (453029) on Monday November 19, 2007 @01:20PM (#21409215) Homepage
    Ask, and ye shall recieve []. I didn't have any trouble making sense of it, but I guess that puts me in the minority.
  • by 91degrees (207121) on Monday November 19, 2007 @01:22PM (#21409261) Journal
    The way I read it - guy posts a comment to Slashdot. Has email address linked.

    Spammer harvests all email addresses from all sites and records the site he got them from.

    Sends out spams assuming that at least some email addresses are going to be the address of the owner of the site.

    Judge claims that the title is not misleading.

    Guy assumes that means that this means he owns the domain.
  • Confused? Don't be. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Mr.Intel (165870) <> on Monday November 19, 2007 @01:22PM (#21409279) Homepage Journal

    For all those who are confused by Bennett's "story", don't be. Let me break it down for you...

    1. Bennett gets a spam [] email.
    2. Bennett decides to sue the spammer for reasons not important to the story.
    3. Despite the obviousness of the spam, Judge decides that the spam was not spam but was, in her legally-binding opinion, a person email.
    4. Bennett explains that this is important because (pay attention now) the same judge that wasn't able to determine what spam looks like also sits more vital cases like child custody, property damage, and rape.
  • Re:2 things (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 19, 2007 @01:37PM (#21409497)
    Think I found it here: [] The address:
  • by Professional Slacker (761130) on Monday November 19, 2007 @01:39PM (#21409537) Homepage
    What does he have to do with slashdot (outside the fine state of Washington) nothing. How ever in Washington a judge has just ruled that the statement "Bennett Haselton owns the website" is not false. And given the boolean nature of the statement since it's not false it must be true. And it makes for a funny story.

    The part that gets me is that she had the headers in hand when delivering the ruling the very same headers that contain this:

    How on earth do you get to be in a judicial position with out realizing that something from a script named auto.php is automated, not to mention the fact that it's in a folder named linkmachine this also doesn't throw up any warning flags? I can understand the judge not understanding the intricacies of how smtp headers work, but how does a person see auto and link machine and not immediately think automated?
  • Judge Judith Eiler (Score:5, Informative)

    by mi (197448) <> on Monday November 19, 2007 @01:43PM (#21409607) Homepage

    somebody get Judge Judith Eiler's email address.

    It does not seem, like she [] has one... We'll have to wait until she — and others like her — retire or die out and get replaced by the new generation of judges. Of course, the new generation will be quite ignorant of details of some other new tech. Such is life today — unlike for the previous part of civilization's history, technology can now change drastically within a human lifetime...

    Then, again, this particular woman has already been cited [] for:

    engaging in a pattern of rude, impatient and undignified treatment of self-represented litigants in the courtroom. This included inappropriately interrupting them, addressing them in an angry or condescending or demeaning tone of voice, and threatening to rule against them if they interrupted or annoyed her.

    This suggests, our (self-represented) anti-spam crusader annoyed her and lost for that reason — not at all because she does not know, what spam is... I admire his intentions, but he needs to partner with a like-minded lawyer, who would be going to courts leaving Bennet to what he does best — baiting spammers and collecting evidence.

  • US Law is like that. (Score:4, Informative)

    by Erris (531066) on Monday November 19, 2007 @01:55PM (#21409807) Homepage Journal

    [the story] reads like the body of a SPAM message - divorced of context and nearly indecipherable syntax.

    That happens when you quote small claims court.

    Let me simplify it. The author sued a small time spammer in small claims court. Audio, transcripts and original documents are provided for your contemplation, amusement and horror. The judge was clueless and the author worries that the judge may move up to where they can screw up more important cases. An interesting opinion about federal spam cases is also provided. The author is rightly frustrated and bitter.

  • by kwabbles (259554) on Monday November 19, 2007 @02:12PM (#21410025)

    A King County District Court judge and Federal Way resident named named Judith Eiler, who in 2003 taught a seminar to Washington state administrative lawyers in "ethical fitness" will now be taking ethics and sensitivity training at her own expense. This last part according to an article in the Tacoma News Tribune.

            A longtime South King County judge was reprimanded Friday by a state commission for a pattern of "rude, impatient and undignified treatment" of self-represented litigants.

            Judge Judith Eiler works in the south division of King County District Court, which includes Federal Way, Kent and Enumclaw. The division is based in Kent. She served in the now-closed Federal Way division from 1992 through 2002.

            The state Commission on Judicial Conduct said Eiler's treatment of those who represented themselves included "inappropriately interrupting them, addressing them in an angry or condescending or demeaning tone of voice, and threatening to rule against them if they interrupted or annoyed her."

            Eiler agreed her conduct violated the Judicial Code of Conduct. The commission ordered her to take ethics and sensitivity training at her own expense.

    The online brochure for the "ethical fitness" professional seminar she gave in Tacoma in May, 2003 (second link from top) notes - rather interestingly - that the credits for that portion of the program were "pending." Coinky-dink, I'm sure.
  • Re:2 things (Score:3, Informative)

    by TheBracket (307388) on Monday November 19, 2007 @02:36PM (#21410385) Homepage
    Here in Missouri, you can automatically appeal any small claims verdict with a trial de neuvo. Basically, you get a whole new small claims trial with a different (usually more senior) judge. I believe that's common in other states, too - and it's used quite a bit, since small claims judges tend not to be too concerned with more than making a verdict in a very tight timeframe. The small claims courts are always bogged down, and each trial tends to receive less than 15 minutes of attention.

    I recently helped a friend on a small claims case (for non-payment by one of his clients) that went to a trial de neuvo after the original judge completely ignored the contract, and reasonable legal arguments - and zeroed in on my friend having a 15-year old felony conviction and stated that she was ruling against him on that basis alone. The judge in the trial de neuvo read the contract, asked the obvious "was the work performed? Was payment rendered?" questions - and ruled in my friend's favour in 5 minutes.

    Small claims courts really aren't the pinnacle of judicial process; but the system recognizes this and has built-in safeguards (you can appeal to a real court if the de neuvo trial is equally silly, but that gets expensive).

    Note: I do have a law degree, but I am not a lawyer - and this is not legal advice. The fact that I have to say that is not at all indicative of an old-boys club mentality in the legal profession, nor does it point towards an unfair closed-shop setup designed to protect the system more than any concepts of justice. ;-)
  • by LrdDimwit (1133419) on Monday November 19, 2007 @02:39PM (#21410427)
    And you should see Hitchcock's The Wrong Man []. It turns out that not only is someone who looks almost just like this guy running around committing these crimes, but all the people who could swear he was a hundred miles away on the day the original crime happened, have since died. Now, this was the days before ATM machines and credit cards and cell phones, all of which can be used after the fact to say "well, someone used his card to buy gas 100 miles from the crime scene" just as well as they can do the reverse. So the guy looks absolutely guilty. How's this relevant? Due process. Due process requires that you can't just rule against people like that because "anyone with technical knowledge" knows the person must have done it. You have to prove it.

    The judge isn't technical. He's a judge. The plaintiff and the spammer are the technical people here. Missing from this story is all the stuff the spammer had to say in his own defense. All of it was pernicious lies, I'm sure, but -- as said -- the spammer knows how to sound convincing. All the plaintiff had was one email, and the plaintiff's own word versus the spammers'. What's the judge supposed to do, take the plaintiff's word for it on the technical matters?

    If he wants to win these cases, he needs to do better than this. Show a pattern of activity -- be able to demonstrate more than one junk message, either multiple copies of one received at a single address, or get multiple plaintiffs, or ... something. Get expert witnesses to testify how, even though the message is addressed to one person, they're autogenerated that way using stolen machines. And it can't be the plaintiff doing the explaining, otherwise it's he-said-she-said. The problem is, in small claims court, the rules are different and your ability to introduce this kind of evidence is limited. Small claims court has laxer standards and isn't really set up to deal with complicated evidence. It's unfortunate, but unavoidable, since the number of cases that need to go thru small claims court is so large that full trials are unworkably impractical. IANAL, so you'd need to actually talk to one to get real advice.
  • Re:2 things (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday November 19, 2007 @04:48PM (#21412339)

    Unlike a lower district court, most appeals courts hear the facts solely on the record generated by the lower court, with the only new material being briefs submitted on both sides to argue why the lower judge either correctly or incorrectly applied the law at hand.

    Is there another appeal system when new evidence comes to light?

    I ask because my SO had problems with a process like this, on an internal disciplinary hearing rather than a court of law. She wasn't told in advance of the hearing what the charges were because they were "confidential". When she got to the hearing it turned out to concern abuse of a resident in the care home she managed and she was found guilty and disciplined -- because she couldn't prove that she had been 8000 miles away at the time of the offence and her accuser had actually been managing the home at the time of the offence. She couldn't prove it because she hadn't known in advance what the charge was, so she hadn't known what evidence to prepare. She also discovered after the hearing that the judge had been actively soliciting evidence against her. However, when she appealed, all that was rejected as inadmissible as evidence because it was new evidence, and the ruling and punishment were upheld because the punishment was appropriate based on the evidence provided at the first hearing. (When she took the case to a real court of law, her employer crumbled like a soft cookie and settled out of court for everything she asked, by the way).

    So I'm rather puzzled by appeals processes that won't hear new evidence, and I do hope that there are other processes that do!

    AC because modding

  • by RomulusNR (29439) on Monday November 19, 2007 @05:05PM (#21412555) Homepage
    19.190 doesn't say anything about bulk mail, in fact it specifically says [] "a" message, meaning a single email can be in violation. Nor do the definitions [] mention bulk messaging at all. It doesn't matter if you know the person or how many they send. Why didn't you point this out to the judge?

Help! I'm trapped in a PDP 11/70!