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Verizon Internet Services Sued for Deceptive Practices

Washington, D.C.-based law firm Cohen Milstein Hausfeld & Toll threw down the gauntlet Tuesday, filing a class action lawsuit in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia against Verizon Internet Services Inc. and parent company Verizon Communications Inc.

The suit, brought by Bruce and Leslie Forrest on behalf of themselves and other Verizon DSL customers, charges the company with breach of contract; violation of Virginia Consumer Protection; untrue, deceptive or misleading advertising; and negligent misrepresentation concerning the fulfillment of promises made about its DSL service.

The suit alleges that Verizon has aggressively marketed its service with advertisements claiming "your Internet access will always be on," "you'll never have to waste time dialing up access or get frustrated by a busy signal," and "when you want to go online to work or to play, you'll be able to. Guaranteed." Additionally, the Access Agreement, posted on its Web site, says, "the Service is generally available daily, seven days a week, except for regularly scheduled maintenance."

But the suit claims that Verizon Internet Services (VIS) subscribers have experienced significant disruptions in service, installation and obtaining technical service. Numerous sites have surfaced on the Web, giving dissatisfied Verizon customers a chance to air their grievances against the company. Other subscribers have gone to newspapers to tell their stories.

Larry Plumb, director of Broadband Media Relations for Verizon, said he could not comment on the lawsuit. However, he noted that DSL is a new industry with complicated and rapidly evolving technology.

"This is a situation that is facing the entire industry," Plumb said. "At Verizon we support DSL, we continue to support DSL and we stand behind our service."

But Cohen Milstein Partner Gary E. Mason told InternetNews Radio Thursday that the newness or complexity of the service is no excuse for not following through on promises.

"I don't think it's any excuse for any new service to say, "Hey, you know, we're still working the bugs out, we're sorry," because that should be disclosed," Mason said. "People should be made aware of that because people have choices and they don't have to choose Verizon DSL. They can choose, in most areas, cable providers, or they can choose to stick with their modems. Why pay a $20 premium when they can get the same speeds with the modems they have. I think consumers need to be advised of what they really can expect of the service, but that's not the message they're sending out in their advertisements and their agreements to people. To the contrary, they're saying "we're going to provide you ultra high-speed service that's always on and other than regularly scheduled maintenance you're always going to have access to the service."

The law suit offers up numerous examples of dissatisfied customers, including Lauri Sallady, whose story was reported in The New York Times. The suit said Sallady was unable to access her Internet account through Verizon DSL for 19 days, preventing her from retrieving business e-mail and responding to e-mail from clients. According to the suit, instead of taking responsibility for the problem, Verizon blamed the failure on troubled DSL wholesaler NorthPoint Communications. The suit also referred to periods in October and November when the service in greater Boston dropped sharply. The suit said customers reported that they lost service for days and even weeks or that the speed of the service was less than that of a dial-up modem. The suit refers to other subscribers who waited as much as four months to have the service implemented once it had been ordered.

The Forrests, the lead plaintiffs in the suit, signed up for the service in August 2000. The suit says they were told service would