On March 30, 2012, U.S. District Judge John Koeltl dismissed a lawsuit that bloggers for Huffington Post filed last year. The lawsuit arose after AOL bought the Huffington Post last year for $315 million. The bloggers alleged in their complaint that Huffington Post and its parent company, AOL Inc., were unjustly benefiting from, and denying the HuffPo bloggers compensation for, their work. As a remedy, the bloggers were seeking damages in the amount of at least $105 million.
This dismissal means that the Huffington Post doesn’t have to provide compensation to bloggers who provide content for the website. The Huffington Post and AOL’s position on the issue is that the bloggers already knew when they agreed to provide content that they wouldn’t be getting paid, yet they made the choice to do so. They could have taken their content to other websites that pay their bloggers. Furthermore, The Huffington Post was not the sole beneficiary of this arrangement, since the bloggers also benefited from having their writing be published on such a highly visible and public platform.
This is not the first time that AOL has been involved in a lawsuit over its reliance on unpaid workers. In 1999, AOL faced a class-action lawsuit of about 2000 AOL “volunteers” who had signed on to help moderate chatrooms for a certain number of hours per week in exchange for a discount on their AOL connection fee. The volunteers alleged that the services they provided AOL effectively rendered them employees entitled to minimum wage and benefits under the Fair Labor Standards Act. The suit eventually settled in 2009 for $15 million.
While the HuffPo bloggers have been forestalled at the district court level, their suit nevertheless suggests how problematic the position of freelance writers stands to be if the Huffington Post’s business model becomes the norm and the prevailing expectation turns into one where freelance writers should be willing to give up their work for free.