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The First Hard Case: Zeran V. AOL And What It Can Teach Us About Today's Hard Cases

from the congress-and-the-courts-got-it-right dept

A version of this post appeared in The Recorder a few years ago as part of a series of articles looking back at the foundational Section 230 case Zeran v. America Online. Since to my unwelcome surprise it is now unfortunately behind a paywall, but still as relevant as ever, I'm re-posting it here.

They say that bad facts make bad law. What makes Zeran v. America Online stand as a seminal case in Section 230 jurisprudence is that its bad facts didn’t. The Fourth Circuit wisely refused to be driven from its principled statutory conclusion, even in the face of a compelling reason to do otherwise, and thus the greater good was served.

Mr. Zeran’s was not the last hard case to pass through the courts. Over the years there have been many worthy victims who have sought redress for legally cognizable injuries caused by others’ use of online services. And many, like Mr. Zeran, have been unlikely to easily obtain it from the party who actually did them the harm. In these cases courts have been left with an apparently stark choice: compel the Internet service provider to compensate for the harm caused to the plaintiff by others’ use of their services, or leave the plaintiff with potentially no remedy at all. It can be tremendously tempting to want to make someone, anyone, pay for harm caused to the person before them. But Zeran provided early guidance that it was possible for courts to resist the temptation to ignore Section 230’s liability limitations – and early evidence that they were right to so resist.

Section 230 is a law that itself counsels a light touch. In order to get the most good content on the Internet and the least bad, Congress codified a policy that is essentially all carrot and no stick. By taking the proverbial gun away from an online service provider’s proverbial head, Congress created the incentive for service providers to be partners in achieving these dual policy goals. It did so in two complementary ways: First, it encouraged the most beneficial content by insulating providers for liability arising from how other people used their services. Second, Congress also sought to ensure there would be the least amount of bad content online by insulating providers from liability if they did indeed act to remove it.

By removing the threat of potentially ruinous liability, or even just the immense cost arising from being on the receiving end of legal threats based on how others have used their services, more and more service providers have been able to come into existence and enable more and more uses of their systems. It's let these providers resist unduly censoring legitimate uses of their systems in order to minimize their legal risk. And by being safe to choose what uses to allow or disallow from their systems, service providers have been free to allocate their resources more effectively to police the most undesirable uses of their systems and services than they would be able to if the threat of liability instead forced them to divert their resources in ways that might not be appropriate for their platforms, optimal, or even useful at all.

Congress could of course have addressed the developing Internet with an alternative policy, one that was more stick than carrot and that threatened penalties instead of offering liability limitations, but such a law would not have met its twin goals of encouraging the most good content and the least bad nearly as well as Section 230 actually has. In fact, it likely would have had the opposite effect, eliminating more good content from the Internet and leaving up more of the bad. The wisdom of Congress, and of the Zeran court, was in realizing that restraint was a better option.

The challenge we are faced with now is keeping courts, and Section 230’s critics, similarly aware. The problem is that the Section 230 policy balance is one that works well in general, but it is not always in ways people readily recognize, especially in specific cases with particularly bad facts. The reality is that people sometimes do use Internet services in bad ways, and these uses can often be extremely visible. What tends to be less obvious, however, is how many good uses of the Internet Section 230 has enabled to be developed, far eclipsing the unfortunate ones. In the 20-plus years since Zeran people have moved on from AOL to countless new Internet services, which now serve nearly 90 percent of all Americans and billions of users worldwide. Internet access has gone from slow modem-driven dial-up to seamless always-on broadband. We email, we tweet, we buy things, we date, we comment, we argue, we read, we research, we share what we know, all thanks to the services made possible by Section 230, but often without awareness of how much we owe to it and the early Zeran decision upholding its tenets. We even complain about Section 230 using services that Section 230 has enabled, and often without any recognition of the irony.

In a sense, Section 230 is potentially in jeopardy of becoming a victim of its own success. It’s easy to see when things go wrong online, but Section 230 has done so well creating a new normalcy that it’s much harder to see just how much it has allowed to go right. Which means that when things do go wrong – as they inevitably will, because, while Section 230 tries to minimize the bad uses of online services, it’s impossible to eliminate them all—we are always at risk of letting our outrage at the specific injustice cause us to be tempted to kill the golden goose by upending something that on the whole has enabled so much good.

When bad things happen there is a natural urge to do something, to clamp down, to try to seize control over a situation where it feels like there is none. When bad things happen the hands-off approach of Section 230 can seem like the wrong one, but Zeran has shown how it is still very much the right one.

In many ways the Zeran court was ahead of its time: unlike later courts that have been able to point to the success of the Internet to underpin their decisions upholding Section 230, the Zeran court had to take a leap of faith that the policy goals behind the statute would be born out as Congress intended. It turned out to be a faith that was not misplaced. Today it is hard to imagine a world without all the benefit that Section 230 has ushered in. But if we fail to heed the lessons of Zeran and exercise the same restraint the court did then, such a world may well be what comes to pass. As we mark more than two decades since the Zeran court affirmed Section 230 we need to continue to carry its lessons forward in order to ensure that we are not also marking its sunset and closing the door on all the other good Section 230 might yet bring.

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Filed Under: intermediary liability, ken zeran, section 230
Companies: aol


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Sep 2020 @ 3:19pm

    Given what Google results say about Ms. Gellis, she is incredibly principled to defend 230. I literally couldn't believe what I read about her.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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