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Blogger targets AOL, seeks class-action status

As AOL's $315 million purchase of The Huffington Post has heated up vitriol among bloggers who want a cut of the deal, one of them has chosen to take the matter to court.

The newly formed Huffington Post Media Group.
The newly formed Huffington Post Media Group. Huffington Post

A political activist and longtime blogger for The Huffington Post filed suit Tuesday against the digital publication, its founders Arianna Huffington and Kenneth Lerer, and its new parent company AOL, citing its use of unpaid blogger talent. The plaintiff, Jonathan Tasini, is seeking class-action status; he filed on behalf of a "putative class" of the estimated 9,000 people who have been published on The Huffington Post without compensation.

"Arianna Huffington is pursuing the Wal-Martization of creative content and a Third World class of creative people," Tasini said in a press release. "Actually, that is unfair to Wal-Mart because at least Wal-Mart pays its workers something for the value those workers create. In Arianna Huffington's business model, economic gain is only reserved for her. Everyone else, apparently, is expected to work for free regardless of the value they create. Greed and selfishness is the order of the day."

Tasini has been a prominent online advocate for labor rights, specifically those of freelance writers, for about a decade now. He ran unsuccessfully for national political office several times, including a campaign to challenge then-New York senator Hillary Clinton in 2006, but his most high-profile role thus far has been as the face of the 2001 U.S. Supreme Court case New York Times Co. v. Tasini, in which freelancers petitioned against the digital distribution without permission or compensation of articles that were originally intended to run in print. The judgment was decided in favor of the freelancers.

Tasini's complaint against AOL and The Huffington Post, filed in a New York district court, requests approximately $105 million in damages.

AOL purchased The Huffington Post for $315 million earlier this year, an acquisition that reinvigorated complaints on behalf of critics who have long decried its use of unpaid talent in exchange for "exposure." (The Huffington Post also employs full-time, salaried reporters and editors.)

One of the most prominent Huffington Post bloggers, Mayhill Fowler--who reported Barack Obama's "clinging to guns and religion" quotation during the 2008 election race--publicly began decrying the unpaid blogger model last fall, saying that she believed she was entitled to compensation because she was contributing reporting rather than opinion pieces.

When CNET contacted The Huffington Post for comment, representatives from the company had not yet seen Tasini's lawsuit. But spokesman Mario Ruiz said via e-mail, "Such a lawsuit would be completely baseless. Our bloggers utilize our platform to connect and ensure that their ideas and views are seen by as many people as possible. It's the same reason hundreds of people go on TV shows--to broadcast their views to as wide an audience as possible."