Pop-Ups Do Not Equal Spam, Court Rules

Jeff Berg
SALT LAKE CITY — An attorney who drew criticism for filing over a thousand lawsuits against spammers and asking for $6,500 to settle was dealt a blow on Thursday when the Utah Court of Appeals decided that pop-up advertising are decidedly different than spam.

Jesse L. Riddle had brought a lawsuit under Utah’s Unsolicited Commercial and Sexually Explicit Email Act, charging that a pop-up ad for Celebrity Cruises Inc. that appeared as he was surfing the Los Angeles Times travel website was in violation of the act.

Agreeing with a lower court, Appellate judges Gregory K. Orme, Russell W. Bench and Norman H. Jackson ruled that, while specific wording of the act taken out of context may make the law apply to pop-ups, the act taken as a whole definitely did not.

Email, as defined in the act, is described as “an electronic message, file, data or other information that is transmitted [either] between two or more computers, computer networks or electronic terminal [or] within a computer network.”

“Admittedly, if we read this definition of email in isolation, as Riddle urges us to do, it appears to be broad enough to include pop-up ads,” wrote Orme. “A comprehensive reading of the act, however, reveals that the Legislature did not intend to regulate the use of pop-up ads under the terms of the act.”

The court ruled that the law is clear and unambiguous because it limits its regulation to email sent “through an intermediary of an email service provider” or “to an email address.”

Using the same language as Celebrity Cruises, the court described pop-ups as more like advertisements found in publications than junk mail.

“Just as a newspaper advertisement is transmitted along with and as part of part of the newspaper and received by the reader as a result of his or her decision to subscribe to the newspaper, the pop-up advertisement is transmitted along with and as part of the host website and received by the Internet user as a result of his or her decision to call up the host website,” the court ruled.

Riddle and law partner Denver Snuffer met with complaints after filing anti-spam complaints against dozens of companies and then offering to settle each suit for $6,500. According to press reports, Riddle has received approximately $80,000 in settlements so far.

The two law partners were also featured in a June 2003 Wall Street Journal article as an example of what can go wrong with state anti-spam laws.

Riddle was also forced to refund more than $67,000 obtained from West Virginia DirectTV customers in connection with a lawsuit brought by Charleston attorney Eric Wilson.

Wilson filed suit after he received a letter from Riddle requesting payment of a DirecTV bill and an additional $98 charge for “Attorney/Collection Cost.” The case eventually drew the attention of West Virginia Attorney General Darrell McGraw.

“Consumers should always be wary whenever a company seeks to collect more than the amount that is legitimately owed,” McGraw told the Associated Press.