America Online (AOL), founded in 1985 as Quantum Computer Services and since 2000 part of Time Warner, is one of the world’s largest Internet service providers (ISPs). It has been involved in litigation with significant civil liberties implications.
In Cyber Promotions v. America Online, 948 F. Supp. 436 (E.D. Pa.1996), a mass-mailer of e-mail advertisements (a spammer) sued AOL for deliberately blocking its messages to AOL subscribers. This, the plaintiff claimed, violated its First Amendment right to have its communications delivered. A federal district court held, however, that a private ISP that is not a state actor may legally block mass-mailed e-mail messages.
The court explained that the plaintiff had not established state action under any of the three established tests: the exclusive public function test (whether the private entity has exercised powers that are traditionally the exclusive prerogative of the state); the state-assisted action test (whether the private entity has acted with the help of or in concert with state officials), or the joint participant test (whether the state has insinuated itself so far into a position of interdependence with the private entity that the state is a joint participant in the challenged activity). Similar results were reached in Noah v. AOL Time Warner, Inc., 261 F. Supp. 2d 532 (E.D. Va. 2003), and Green v. AOL, 318 F.3d 465 (3rd Cir. 2003).
In Zeran v. America Online, 129 F. 3d 327 (4th Cir. 1997), AOL was sued for defamation by the victim of an Internet prank in which messages posted on an AOL bulletin board advertised T-shirts with tasteless slogans relating to the bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building. Plaintiff Ken Zeran received numerous hostile telephone calls, as well as some death threats, and claimed that AOL delayed unreasonably in removing the offending messages. The Court found that AOL was protected by the Communications Decency Act, which insulates ISPs from liability for information originating with third parties.
References and Further Reading
- AOL: Who We Are, https://www.corp.aol.com/whoweare/history.shtml#1985, visited August 23, 2005
- Sheridan, David R., Zeran v. AOL and the Effect of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act Upon Liability for Defamation on the Internet, Alb. L. Rev. 61 (1997): 147
Cases and Statutes Cited
- Cyber Promotions v. America Online, 948 F. Supp. 436 (E.D. Pa.1996)
- Green v. America Online, 318 F.3d 465 (3rd Cir. 2003)
- In re America Online, Inc., 168 F.Supp.2d 1359 (S.D. Fla. 2001)
- Noah v. AOL Time Warner, Inc., 261 F. Supp. 2d 532 (E.D. Va. 2003)
- Zeran v. America Online, Inc., 129 F. 3d 327 (4th Cir. 1997)
- Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. sec. 230