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The tech industry's enormous power can be traced to the 1990s and a troll on AOL. The lawsuit that resulted determined how the internet works today. NPR's Bobby Allyn has more.
BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: In April 1995, Ken Zeran's phone started ringing and ringing some more. It just wouldn't stop.
KEN ZERAN: It wasn't like every second, but it was just lots of calls.
ALLYN: He ran a real estate magazine in Seattle, but these calls had nothing to do with that. These callers were angry, often screaming,
ZERAN: How could you do this? What a loser you are. I mean, I'm just paraphrasing all of it now. You could use your own sense and think of what they might be saying, given what had just happened in Oklahoma City.
ALLYN: This was just days after the Oklahoma City bombing, the domestic terrorist attack that killed more than 160 people. On AOL, someone had impersonated Zeran with his real phone number and advertised, quote, "great Oklahoma T-shirts" that were anything but great. They made light of the bombing and said tasteless things about the victims. Zeran wanted these ads taken down so his phone would stop ringing. He called AOL.
ZERAN: And basically I told them, you know, my phone's ringing off the hook, and I can't get anything done. And it's all these people upset about something that they saw on AOL.
ALLYN: AOL removed the ad, but more popped up. He tried AOL's legal department, the FBI, the Secret Service. He called everyone he could to get these ads taken down, but his phone kept ringing.
ZERAN: I didn't want the thing to go any further and have some, you know, nitwit show up with a shotgun on my property. The problem was AOL would not post something on their server telling their audience that this is a bunch of baloney, a hoax or whatever.
ALLYN: Zeran has never been able to find his troll. AOL was easier to find, and he thought they contributed to his pain by not doing enough to take down the ads. So he sued AOL. He didn't know it at the time, but this was about to make history. The court had a tough decision to make. Does it protect Zeran or does the court preserve the free and open internet as an idea? Well, Zeran lost.
ZERAN: The judge made a huge mistake because by removing responsibility, they created chaos.
ALLYN: Experts agree this court decision has added to online chaos and arguably made confronting harassment, disinformation and other abuse less urgent for Silicon Valley. To this day, if you try to sue a website for something someone posted, judges will say, no, you can't do that and point to the Zeran precedent. It's happened hundreds and hundreds of times. But legal scholar Jeff Kosseff says back then, the court handed down this ruling to strengthen a brand-new law written for an industry in its infancy.
JEFF KOSSEFF: They took this really exceptionalist view by saying, you know, Congress wanted to treat the internet differently than other media and provide this strong protection in an effort to encourage innovation and speech on the internet.
ALLYN: With internet companies now transformed into global titans, thanks in part to this legal protection, there's a movement afoot to weaken the law. It's even playing out in the courts. A panel of federal appeals judges this month ruled that the messaging app Snapchat actually could be sued after the app was used in a fatal car crash. The decision made one lawyer tweet, the reign of Zeran is over. Maybe not, but for those hoping to sue social media companies, it provided some hope.
Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco.
(SOUNDBITE OF KETTEL'S "RIBCAGE")
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