A Historical Review of Cases Before and After the Enactment of The § 230

Before Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, there are two main internet libel cases related to service providers liability.

The first one is Cubby, Inc. vs. CompuServe Inc. in 1991. In that case, the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York held that CompuServe, an online general information service that provides subscribers with access to online forums, acted as a distributor of the defamatory content generated by Rumorville USA, one publication available as part of the Journalism Forum, one of the forums. “Plaintiffs have not set forth any specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue as to whether CompuServe knew or had reason to know of Rumorville’s contents.” As a result, the court ruled that “CompuServe, as a news distributor, may not be held liable if it neither knew nor had reason to know of the allegedly defamatory Rumorville statements.”

On the contrary, in Stratton Oakmont vs. Prodigy (1995), U.S. New York Supreme Court ruled that Prodigy, a network service provider, was liable for their user’s defamatory speech on their online forum. The Court ruled that Prodigy functioned as a publisher instead of a distributor because Prodigy made it clear to the public that they have editorial control over the content users generate.

After Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act was enacted, one of the most important cases is Zeran v. American Online. The rulings of lots of similar cases have been based on the court opinion of Zeran v. American Online.

–good illustration of the case presented by Brittany Newland


In that case, Kenneth Zeran argued that America Online, Inc. (“AOL”) “unreasonably delayed in removing defamatory messages posted by an unidentified third party, refused to post retractions of those messages, and failed to screen for similar postings thereafter.” The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act barred Zeran’s claims.

The court determined that “By its plain language, § 230 creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third- party user of the service. Specifically, § 230 precludes courts from entertaining claims that would place a computer service provider in a publisher’s role. Thus, lawsuits seeking to hold a service provider liable for its exercise of a publisher’s traditional editorial functions – – such as deciding whether to publish, withdraw, postpone or alter content – – are barred.”

The court noted that the purpose of the statutory immunity is to prevent the “the threat that tort-based lawsuits pose to freedom of speech in the new and burgeoning Internet medium.” And “In specific statutory findings, Congress recognized the Internet and interactive computer services as offering a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.”

The court also noted that Congress enacted the § 230 to “remove the disincentives to self-regulation created by the Stratton Oakmont decision” because “under that court’s holding, computer service providers who regulated the dissemination of offensive material on their services risked subjecting themselves to liability, because such regulation cast the service provider in the role of a publisher.” The enactment of § 230 is to encourage service providers to self- regulate the dissemination of offensive material over their services.

Since then, rulings in similar cases echoed those opinions such as in Sidney Blumenthal, et al. v. Matt Drudge and America Online, Inc. (1998)John Doe v. Franco Productions, et al. (2000) and Schneider v. Amazon.com, Inc. (2001).

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