Press release of July 31, 2003

On the sixth of June 2003, the seventeenth chamber of the "tribunal de grande instance" of Paris (France), pronounced a precedence-setting verdict that classifies spam (unsolicited bulk e-mail) as criminal under French law.

An Internet user had lodged a complaint because he had received an e-mail advertising an on-line pornographic service. His e-mail had been collected from a news forum, and included on a CD-ROM sold in Bulgaria. The accused had bought this CD-ROM and used it to send several thousand e-mails.

The court ruled that using a list of e-mail addresses to send bulk advertisements was an automated processing of data permitting identifaction of individuals, which falls squarely under the provisions of the French law 78-17 called "loi Informatique et Libertés" (roughly "Computers and Civil Liberties").

The spammer's automated processing not having been declared to the regulatory agency specified by the law, the court ruled that the accused had committed the misdemeanour defined by article 226-16 of French criminal law, with neither negligence nor absence of harmful intent being admissible as mitigating circumstances. The court sentenced the accused to pay damages of one thousand euros to the plaintiff, as well as a fine of three thousand euros.

The verdict creates a precedent in that it rules that advertising by electronic mail is subject to the "loi Informatiques et Libertés", which protects individuals from the abuse of automated data processing. It confirms that the Internet is in no case a legal no-man's-land where the citizen cannot defend himself against cyber-agression, but is on the contrary an integral part of our society, and subject to its laws. The text (in French) of the verdict is here.

Translator's notes:

"Tribunal de grande instance": first-instance court of major jurisdiction; there are 175 such courts in France, according to Legifrance (Legifrance is the French government web site for access to law). The seventeenth chamber of the Paris TGI is specifically delegated both civil and criminal affairs relating to the press, and to libel. The decisions of the court may be appealed (to the Cour d'appel) for a reconsideration of both factual and legal issues, and to the Cour de Cassation purely on points of law.

Loi "Informatique et Libertés": roughly "Computers and Civil Liberties", dating from 1978, the full text of the law may be found (in French) on Legifrance (loi numéro 78-17).

In English, you may find the penalties concerning the "loi Informatique et Libertés" in the translated "Code pénal", starting at article 226-16. Briefly, the law regulates any automated processing of any data that permits identification of individual persons. Such processing must be declared to the regulatory agency instituted by the law, and must abide by numerous restrictions concerning the nature of the data (medical, religious...), the security of the data, the cross-referencing of different databases, the collection of the data (must not be done without the knowledge and in certain cases consent of the persons concerned), and the access to the data by the persons concerned. It is the opinion of the translator (and probably of the plaintiff!) that the restrictions imposed rule out the possibility of unsolicited bulk e-mail.

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