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5 Suits That Changed the Internet

By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. | Last updated on

What made the Internet the strange, fascinating and sometimes frightening animal that it is today? It wasn't just the Silicon Valley billionaires, ARPANET visionaries or cats -- lots and lots of cats. The legal system bears its share of praise, or blame, as well.

From protecting free speech online, to prosecuting cyber pirates, these five lawsuits helped shape today's information super-highway:

1. Free Speech on the Internet - Reno v. ACLU. This landmark case was the first to apply First Amendment free speech protections to the Internet. The Communications Decency Act had attempted to criminalize transmissions of obscene or indecent messages and other "excretory activities." The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the regulations were an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.

2. ISPs not Responsible for Their Users - Zeran v. AOL. This case enshrined the CDA not as a statute for Internet censorship, but as the protector of Internet intermediaries. Zeran had sued AOL for negligence following harassment organized through their service. The Fourth Circuit ruled that under the CDA, intermediaries such as ISPs, social media forums, web hosting companies and the like, cannot be held responsible for the tortious acts of their users.

3. You Agreed to Those Terms You Never Saw - ProCD v. Zeidenberg. Those terms of service and licensing agreements you never read? Well, you've agreed to them anyway, according to this 1996 Seventh Circuit case establishing the validity of shrinkwrap and clickwrap licenses.

4. No Immunity for P2P Platforms: A&M Records v. Napster. In this 2001 case, the Ninth Circuit held that Napster, the then-omnipresent peer-to-peer file sharing service could be held liable for contributory and vicarious infringement of copyrights. The logic behind the Napster brought down a major piracy platform and has been used to shut down similar P2P programs, such as torrent sites, since.

5. Trying to Slay the Giant - Years of Microsoft Litigation. Not so much a lawsuit as a series of enforcement actions stretching over decades, the DOJ's (and EU's) antitrust litigation with Microsoft is part of the reason you're, probably, not reading this on Internet Explorer. These cases showed that it might be difficult, but not impossible, to reign in monopolies which could otherwise stifle how and where we get our 'net.

What does the future hold for Internet-related litigation? Will lawsuits surrounding the FCC's net neutrality rulemaking once again reshape the world wide web? Let us know your thoughts via Twitter (@FindLawLP) or Facebook (FindLaw for Legal Professionals).

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