Hall v. Earthlink Network, Inc., 396 F.3d 500 (2d Cir. 2005) (full-text).
Plaintiff Peter Hall is an independent film producer. He had an e-mail account on Earthlink through which he intended to promote his new film. Earthlink was informed that Hall’s e-mail address was being used for spam. As a result, Earthlink terminated Hall’s access to the e-mail account and listed Hall’s e-mail address on the “Net Abuse Report,” an online list of e-mail abusers. Six days later, Earthlink determined that Hall was not a spammer. The parties differ on whether or not Earthlink offered to allow Hall access to the e-mail account, but the account was never reopened. Earthlink was still allowing e-mails to be received and stored in the account. Almost a year later, Earthlink sent all of the stored e-mails to Hall.
District Court Proceedings
Hall sued Earthlink for a variety of claims, including a violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). Hall’s claim was that Earthlink violated the Act when it “illegally intercepted” his e-mails by intentionally receiving e-mails sent to Hall’s e-mail address after termination of his account. The district court dismissed his claims. Hall appealed.
Appellate Court Proceedings
While noting that the ECPA makes it illegal to intentionally intercept third party e-mails, there is an exception in the law for such interceptions in the “ordinary course of business.” The language of the exception applies to “any telephone or telegraph instrument, equipment or facility, or any component thereof . . . being used by a provider of wire or electronic communication service in the ordinary course of business.” Hall argued that the exception did not apply, since Earthlink was not using “telephone or telegraph” instruments, equipment or facilities. Earthlink argued that the phrase “telephone or telegraph” only applied to “instruments,” and did not limit the terms “equipment or facilities.”
The court could not determine from the language of that statute which interpretation was correct. Looking at the legislative history, the court held that “Congress’ use of the term ‘telephone’ was thus understood to include the instruments, equipment and facilities that ISPs use to transmit e-mail.” Thus, under either party’s interpretation of the statutory language, ISPs qualify for the ordinary course of business exception.
In addition, the court held that any interpretation that excluded ISPs from the exception would make no sense. “If ISPs were not covered by the ordinary course of business exception, ISPs would constantly be intercepting communications under the ECPA because their basic services involve the ‘acquisition of contents’ of electronic communications. * * * Congress could not have intended this absurd result.”
Hall also argued that Earthlink’s seizure of e-mails from a terminated user was not within the ordinary course of business, and that Earthlink should have merely bounced the messages back to the sender. However, Hall did not provide any evidence to support this claim, while Earthlink claimed that that was its normal practice and that the technology did not exist to bounce e-mails back to senders after termination of an account. As a result, the appellate court affirmed the lower court’s decision.
- 18 U.S.C. § 2510(5)(a).