In 1997, the Federal District Court for the Western District of Pennsylvania evaluated one in a line of emerging personal jurisdiction cases that raised the question of whether Internet-based contacts with citizens of the forum state can alone establish the defendant purposefully availed himself of the benefits and protections of the forum state. In this unlikely watershed case, Zippo Mfg. Co. v. Zippo Dot Com, the District Court wrangled with the new concept of purposeful availment through electronic contact with the forum state. The court viewed Zippo and its antecedents as components of a new body of personal jurisdiction law: Internet-based personal jurisdiction. In Zippo, the District Court created a new test, the Zippo sliding scale, to evaluate the purposeful availment issue when the defendant's contacts are based on Internet conduct. Many courts then followed Zippo's impulse to categorize Internet-based contacts differently than other contacts and applied the sliding scale to a variety of cases possessing the common thread of Internet activity.
Zippo and its progeny raise the question of to what extent the law should customize doctrine to address the practical changes created by technological advances. Courts now stand in a similar position to Courts at the turn of the Twentieth Century when the country struggled with the realities of industrialization and cross-country travel. Through Pennoyer, then later through International Shoe, courts mediated the tensions between national growth and the tradition of territoriality through tests based on a defendant's contacts with the forum, rather than a defendant's physical presence in the forum. Territoriality, or place, served as the foundation of Twentieth Century personal jurisdiction jurisprudence and the use of a minimum contacts analysis formed the analytical structure.
Tensions exist between the role of contacts based on Internet activity and the foundation and structure created through theories based on place.
The Zippo sliding scale was the Federal District Court's response to the tension created by the perceived amelioration of place as a determinant of contacts and purposeful availment. The Zippo approach responded to a rising fear that if entities are able to contact citizens of the forum through the Internet alone, those contacts will fail the test of minimum contacts because Internet-based contacts can be disseminated so widely, purposeful availment with any particular forum is non-existent.
This article argues judicial responses such as the Court's response in Zippo constitute premature, non-functional and destabilizing reactions to Internet-based contacts analysis. First, the article argues the Zippo sliding scale has destabilized the foundation of personal jurisdiction jurisprudence by directing courts to analyze the defendant's contacts by reference to a linear scale which serves as a non-functional addition on the existing foundation. The article further argues the hasty construction of Zippo creates a new need to shore up the established framework of contacts analysis based on the place theory directives of International Shoe and Pennoyer. Finally, the article evaluates how place theory fits in the modern context through the hypothetical analysis of a case wherein a defendant's only contacts with the forum are through Internet-based activity.
Ross, Catherine J., "There is a There There: How the Zippo Sliding Scale Has Destabilized the Structural Foundation of Personal Jurisdiction Analysis" (2008). GW Law Faculty Publications & Other Works. 876.