PRODIGY ON TRIAL

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Old-line concepts applied to new-media forms can have frightening implications. Take New York State Supreme Court Justice Stuart L. Ain's May 25 ruling that Prodigy can be held legally liable for comments posted by users on its service. The decision lets a $200 million libel lawsuit against Prodigy by investment banking firm Stratton Oakmont proceed.

Justice Ain found Prodigy more like a book publisher than a bookstore largely because it used to pre-screen all user messages for offensive language, a practice it revised two years ago. The ruling-and Prodigy's argument that as a "bookstore" it is not responsible for the content on its service-miss the point entirely.

Prodigy is neither bookstore nor book publisher. It's a new medium conducting business in an amorphous place called cyberspace. New benchmarks and new rules must take into account the unique features and capabilities of the online medium. And whatever system that's arrived at should encourage corporate responsibility and self-regulation-not penalize it.

The New York ruling, and calls for tough federal laws against on-line pornography trafficking, raise legitimate issues. But the solution is not to force online services to flee from any attempt at supervising their bulletin boards-or to stop offering them altogether. This would make cyberspace even wilder than it is today, or deprive businesses and consumers of one of the true benefits of emerging communications technologies.

So Prodigy is to be tried in part because it once tried to keep obscene and racist messages off its service. The New York courts can still turn back from this path, and they should. Meanwhile, Congress and other legislatures should learn from this that creative new policymaking is called for. As the Prodigy libel case shows, laws and policies developed over the years for other media can be poor fits here.

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