They say that bad facts make bad law. What makes Zeran v. AOL stand as a seminal case in §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 to resist the temptation to ignore §230’s liability limitations – and early evidence that it was right to so resist.
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