Case Analysis: Zeran v. America Online, Inc.

Facts

Kenneth Zeran, a Seattle retailer, sued America Online, Inc. after erroneously publishing his name in a misleading advertisement. Zeran was distressed by numerous harassment calls triggered by the insulting message published alongside his name. While Zeran urged America Online to pull down the misleading advertisement, the Internet Service Provider (ISP) declined from issuing a retraction that would vindicate him from the public hate and vitriol (Goldman, 2017). Disturbed by the ISP’s unwillingness to issue a disclaimer, Zeran sued American Online (AOL) citing damages on his public identity and image. The court insisted that Zeran could not hold the ISP liable for the damages because of its role in the information chain (Meeran, 2018). While AOL is a platform that allows individuals to access information, it cannot control what other users post publicly. Further appeal attempts in the Supreme Court were fruitless because of AOL’s in the information food chain.

Issues

Zeran felt that AOL should have issued a retraction that would have reduced the harassment calls and the death threats on his life because of the misplaced advertisement. While Zeran was not responsible for the bombing, he felt that the ISP could have issued a disclaimer and even a public apology vindicating him from his involvement in the criminal act. Even though the ISP complied with Zeran’s pleas to pull down the misleading advertisement, his consistent efforts to vindicate his name from the public were fruitless (Balasubramani, 2016). The court vindicated the ISP because of its role in the information food chain. The jury was convinced that AOL was unable to control people’s thoughts on the platform. Instead, flagging content that did not comply with their editorial policy and withdrawing it was the only thing the ISP could have done at the moment because of its publisher’s role.

Holding

No.

Referring to Section 230, the court indicated that no publisher or internet user shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of information shared by a different content provider (Usman, 2017). From this realization, AOL was not at fault for the information shared by one of the internet users on its platform. While it took time to flag the content, the only responsible thing for the ISP was to withdraw the misleading advert from the public domain.

Rationale

The court identified the role of different stakeholders and their influence on the ability of individuals to access information. On many occasions, subsequent court rulings have referred to the landmark holding that defines the responsibility of different individuals in the internet ecosystem. While ISPs create a platform for internet users to interact on topical issues, they are not responsible for the content shared by individuals on the internet (Ladwig, 2020). However, they have a responsibility to identify misleading information and withdraw it from the public domain to avoid causing any harm to unsuspecting individuals.

Market Analysis

The mainstream and new media encounter different challenges associated with legal issues that affect their ability to protect the rights of individuals in their surroundings. Understanding the different legal clauses that protect the lifestyles of individuals is an important approach that defines the responsibility of the media in creating credible information that shapes the thought process of individuals (Penney, 2020). Importantly, the publishers of content on any interactive platform should be held to account for their actions that extend harm to innocent consumers of information. Therefore, AOL should have identified the internet user who shared the misleading information to restore justice to the affected parties.

References

Balasubramani, V. (2016). Online Intermediary Immunity Under Section 230. Bus. Law.72, 275.

Goldman, E. (2017). Who Cyber-Attacked Ken Zeran, and Why? Law. com.

Ladwig, C. (2020). Encounters with Bigfoot on the Strip: The Risks and Liabilities of Online Reviews. Journal of Information Systems Education31(2), 11.

Meeran, Y. A. (2018). As Justice So Requires: Making the Case for a Limited Reading of Sec. 230 of the Communications Decency Act. Geo. Wash. L. Rev.86, 257.

Penney, J. (2020). Online Abuse, Chilling Effects, and Human Rights.

Usman, H. (2017). ‘Guideline on Internet Service Providers’(ISPS) Liability Regime in the United States.

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