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Huffington suit could change landscape of internet

April 23rd, 2011  |  Sheryl Allenson

In today’s world of social media, so many of us have posted a thought, comment or idea on the internet in an effort to get a word or image out. Often contributed via free websites, the question of entitlement or compensation for that work has entered the conversation, in part due to a lawsuit filed by Jonathan Tasini against The Huffington Post and its owners, including Arianna Huffington. Seemingly, by his comments, Tasini suggests he has organized all contributors, and apparently has declared that anyone who continues blogging will be deemed a strikebreaking scab. Tasini, a labor activist and blogger who previously contributed to The Huntington Post, filed suit on behalf of himself and allegedly on behalf of thousands of others who provide content to the website. (Tasini v AOL Inc, complaint filed April 12, 2011).

Tasini complains that authors who supplied free content were denied any compensation, and that the Huffington Post and Huffington were unjustly enriched after the sale of the company to AOL. On his WorkingLife.org blog, Tasini fired back at Huffington’s response to the lawsuit, stating “Ms. Huffington’s fear is that bloggers will unite, thus ending her ability to exploit them. She fears that her “brand” will drown in a pool of hypocrisy—a “liberal/progressive” exposed as a fraud, as an exploiter of people no different than the Waltons of Wal-Mart, Goldman Sachs or Rupert Murdoch. At least, the Waltons or Murdochs or other similar corporate leaders are honest—they make no bones about their political views or their willingness to exploit people for profit and fuel unrelenting class warfare.”

Bloggers, however, do not universally stand behind Tasini. For example, in his first post on TheHuffintonPost.com last week, Yashar Hedayat declared ‘I wrote this post because in his rant before filing his suit against AOL/Huffington Post, he said that anyone who writes for the Huffington Post will be considered a “scab.” That’s funny Mr. Tasini — I don’t remember signing a card joining your union, and I don’t think you organized the 9,000 bloggers who have Huffington Post accounts.” In his post, which he says he submitted on his own volition and not at anyone’s request, Mr. Hedayat claims that Tasini’s lawsuit goes beyond simply filing a frivolous suit.

Instead, Hedayat suggested, the lawsuit is staging an attack “on the most important revolution we’ve had in the way we communicate in centuries.” And Tasini makes no bones about it—in fact his post-suit blog stated that bloggers should not only rely on the suit to bring down Huffington and impliedly, others like her.

“This is about YOU, the bloggers and creators everywhere.

 Do not wait for the court case to play out.

 Organize now.

This is an opportunity to change the future. The rhetoric that YOU should work for free, create value for media CEOs and enrich them, and only them, and, then, be satisfied that you just got published, read or seen has very little to do with the digital age.”

 In the complaint, Tasini alleges that TheHuffingtonPost.com was an extremely valuable internet property, due to the valuable and uncompensated efforts of Tasini and other class members. He alleges that as a result, the company was acquired by AOL for $315 million, and that at least $105 million of that was due to class members’ efforts. However, Tasini asserts that none of the proceeds were shared with him or with the Class.

In her response, published on The Huffington Post, in which Arianna Huffington makes clear her position that Tasini’s lawsuit is “utterly without merit” Huffington also points out that we have entered a new era, which has enabled people to take an active role in sharing their expressions.  “The key point that the lawsuit completely ignores (or perhaps fails to understand) is how new media, new technologies, and the linked economy have changed the game, enabling millions of people to shift their focus from passive observation to active participation — from couch potato to self-expression. Writing blogs, sending tweets, updating your Facebook page, editing photos, uploading videos, and making music are options made possible by new technologies,” Huffington said.

While Tasini equates his blogging to modern day slavery, an analogy which Huffington calls “deeply offensive,” she suggested that emails from Tasini extolling the virtues of blogging on The Huffington Post lend credence to her position that he acquired value from his contributions. “So, without a shadow of a doubt (legal or otherwise), Tasini understood and appreciated the value of having a post on HuffPost — and was only too happy to use our platform’s ability to get his work seen by a wider audience and raise his profile when he was running for office. Until, years later, when he suddenly decided that he’d changed his mind… and that instead of providing a boost to his career and political aspirations, posting on our site was actually just like being a slave on a plantation (I wonder if slaves ever sent thank-you treats to their masters),” she wrote.

Free content drives a great deal of the social medial sources people use for self-expression. Here, Huffington suggests that Tasini and other bloggers knew that they were contributing free content, and were happy to do it in exchange for the exposure that The Huffington Post could offer. “People blog on HuffPost for free for the same reason they go on cable TV shows every night for free: either because they are passionate about their ideas or because they have something to promote and want exposure to large and multiple audiences,” Huffington stated.

While the outcome of the suit remains to be seen, it stands to have a big impact on the world of social media. With Facebookers, Tweeters, bloggers, and others across the internet constantly—and voluntarily— adding free content to the internet, the question of whether such content might suddenly become compensable raises the question of how such a decision would chill the ability of individuals to engage in self-expression and engagement.

For example, will Amazon be required to offer those who post a recommendation a discount, or is it enough that that those individuals are able to express themselves and also obtain value from Amazon’s site? Here, as Huffington points out, it was not until AOL placed a value on the site that he suggested he was entitled to compensation. On the other hand, without Huffington’s efforts, Tasini’s posts may have gone unnoticed.