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Irked ISPs Seek AOL 5.0 Relief

Three independent Internet service providers are suing America Online Inc. for support headaches they've encountered from users of the online giant's latest software version.

In the suit, filed late last week in Baltimore City Circuit Court, CapuNet LLC, Digizen and Millkern Communications Inc. are demanding compensation from the nation's largest Internet service provider for the administrative and technical costs of helping customers resolve programming bugs in AOL's version 5.0 software.

The class action lawsuit is the third action filed against America Online (AOL). Lawyers last week filed class-action lawsuits in Virginia and California on behalf of 8 million ASL customers using its 5.0 release. The suits allege that the latest version of America Online's software cripples existing Internet accounts with rival service providers.

Although Prodigy Communications Corp. (PRGY) has not joined the class action suit, the Internet service provider demanded that AOL distribute a patch to fix the programming error, or cease distribution altogether.

The trio of independent service providers wants to get the ball rolling for the estimated 6,000 independent ISPs that are draining their technical resources and support personnel to fix the AOL 5.0 bug.

Rich D'Amato, an AOL spokesman, said the lawsuits were meritless.

"The 5.0 software provides users with the ability to select AOL as their default Internet connection, but only if they make the choice to do so," D'Amato said. "It's designed to provide a more stable online environment, but it doesn't prevent users from accessing the Internet through another provider."

Maryland-based CapuNet is an ISP that provides connectivity services and support to thousands of companies in the area. Those companies in turn provide Internet access and e-mail to as many as 1,000 different employees.

John Dvorak, CapuNet's director of technology, said about 45 of its 1,000 corporate customers reported problems after installing AOL Version 5.0, but that AOL did not support the software.

"When my customers call AOL, they don't get an answer, so we wind up fixing the problem because we're smaller and the client can reach us," Dvorak said.

Although AOL contends that its technical support staff can easily walk customers through the steps necessary to adjust their connection to the Internet, Dvorak said his technicians were spending up to two hours walking each client through the reconnection process.

Steven D. Imparl, an Internet attorney in Chicago, said to allow this type of a legal remedy would open up the floodgates to hostile litigation all over the country.

"I don't know that it makes a whole lot of sense," Imparl said. "There are some incompatabilities. Other people had no problems at all, so I think it's a combination of factors, complicated enough that one would have a problem saying that this is clearly intentional and that is the legal standard for any cause of action here."

Donald Weightman, an attorney in Washington, D.C. who routinely advises ISPs on broadband access and other Internet-related legal issues, believes the lawsuits could create trouble for AOL in court.

"With 8 percent of their users accessing another ISP, it's certainly part of the design project to say `is this is going to interfere with access to other ISPs?' You're supposed to test for that kind of stuff," Weightman said.

In order for customers to access the Internet through an independent ISP in conjunction with AOL 5.0, users must mod