CHAPTER 19Publisher or Platform?

In the fall of 1994, an unidentified user on a bulletin board titled Money Talk accused the New York–based investment firm Stratton Oakmont (depicted in the 2013 Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Wolf of Wall Street) and its CEO of criminal and fraudulent conduct associated with an initial public offering. Money Talk was a bulletin board developed and maintained by the internet service provider Prodigy. The investment firm sued Prodigy (and the unidentified user) for defamation. Prodigy argued that it could not be held responsible for content that was posted by its users. The plaintiff argued differently, suggesting that Prodigy was the actual publisher of this content and should therefore be held liable for it. The court found Prodigy liable for this content because, among other reasons, it was exercising editorial control in a number of different ways, including the removal of offensive language by users on its site. This ruling was a huge deal for the young internet, as it could potentially open the doors for hundreds if not thousands of lawsuits and likely threaten the existence of the World Wide Web as we once knew it. At the same time, CompuServe was sued by a third party for defamation. Their approach was not to moderate any content. Given this model of hands‐off moderation, the lawsuit against them was thrown out.

These examples highlight two very different approaches to the internet with different rulings. However, these lawsuits signaled ...

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