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RealTime IT News

SmartDownload's Hand in the Cookie Jar

It seems Netscape and parent America Online have a little egg on their faces. But AOL suits are sticking to their pat "totally without merit" response to a federal class action lawsuit that claims the eight hundred pound gorilla's Netscape sibling compromised consumer privacy with its SmartDo wnload browser add-on.

If that sounds awfully familiar, it's because you've heard it before from the world's largest ISP. Back when another class action suit was brought against AOL, then alleging that the ISP's new AOL 5.0 browser disabled alternate service providers housed on users' PCs, the response was identical - "totally without merit."

I really liked the idea behind the SmartDownload innovation when I used it a couple of years ago. But these days, with "always on" broadband, the add-on is doomed to go the way of the Do-Do. As it turns out, Netscape's SmartDownload does indeed retrieve information about the download, without the user's knowledge nor permission. And just get a load of the official caught-with-their-pants-down response. A spokesman for AOL claims that the info, which includes what types of files users are downloading, was designed to give the IT guys over at Netscape better insight into which files were most difficult to download - especially those of the pesky Microsoft Internet Explorer variety, no doubt.

AOL's mouthpiece went on to say that the browser-maker never actually looked at any of the info and that it was regularly put curbside for garbage pickup. Now I'm starting to wonder aloud whether AOL officials are magna cum laude graduates of the Bill Clinton charm school. Dodge everything unless they manage to nail your foot to the floor - then run around in circles.

To be honest, you can't blame the company. The potential fallout from a breach of privacy on this scale has been well-documented. DoubleClick nearly wound up with a bevy of states' Attorney Generals as unwelcome houseguests when it came to light that the online ad agency had ambitious plans to track Web surfers using its newly acquired Abacus Direct database. Not inclined to follow in Microsoft's legal footsteps, DoubleClick did the right thing - got on bended knee and cried like a baby - but not before its brand took a black eye.

It's not that this class action suit will ever actually find its way into America Online's pocketbook. Instead, the real damage could be to its brand if this modest brushfire is allowed to spread. Having Netscape monitor my super-secretive downloads isn't worth $10,000 a head in any court of law, but it could potentially raise the paranoia factor particularly amongst new users boarding the information superhighway. Translation: America Online's target demographic.

In the meantime, I'll just continue using Internet Explorer, because in my opinion, it's a better browser. And will America Online or Netscape ever 'fess up to having their proverbial hand in the cookie jar? Well, that depends on what your definition of "fess" is.

Any questions or comments, love letters or hate mail? As always, feel free to forward them to kblack@internet.com.

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