If I were an expert survivalist who was offered one tool to survive alone in the elements, I would probably choose a fire starter … but maybe a knife, a pot, or duct tape. Really, I would want all of those items because no one tool has the versatility I would want. But, for an expert in defending website operators from against claims, choosing one tool is easy. Zeran v. AOL is the survivalist’s kit for websites. Fortunately, lawyers almost never find ourselves in a situation where we can only cite one case. But if that were to happen, the Fourth Circuit’s thorough and well-reasoned decision in Zeran would likely be the one case I would choose.

Ever since Congress passed 47 U.S.C. §230, a federal law that says, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider,” creative lawyers have been searching for ways to circumvent the statute and nab website owners for the bad acts of their users. An often-made threat from attempted §230 circumventors is “this case is different.” Some assertions I often hear as to why §230 won’t protect my client in their “unique” situation are that his client asked for removal of the offending content, her client’s business was destroyed, my client said it would remove the post, my client refused to identify the author, or my client edited the post. All of these claims were eradicated twenty years ago in a single court decision in the Zeran case.

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