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AOL Sued Over Networking Bugs in AOL 5.0

America Online Inc. has been hit with class-action lawsuit on behalf of subscribers who installed AOL version 5.0 and subsequently lost their ability to connect to other Internet service providers.

The lawsuit, filed Jan. 31 in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia, alleges that AOL (AOL) "fraudulently concealed" the fact that the latest version of its software could interfere with the operation of other software and Internet access settings.

Lloyd Gathings, partner with Alabama-based Gathings, Kennedy and Associates, one of the law firms representing the plaintiffs, said AOL knew about the bugs in 5.0 and released it anyway on October 5, 1999 "either intentionally or with reckless disregard of the consequences."

As first reported by InternetNews in October, the AOL 5.0 networking bugs were a topic of heated postings to the private message boards for beta testers of 5.0. Many testers expressed concerns about what they called the "Evil Connectoid," a bug which appears to affect primarily AOL users who also have LAN connections or accounts with other Internet service providers. Installing AOL 5 can reset or misconfigure the TCP/IP settings of such users, rendering their Internet connections unusable and generating "server not found" messages whenever they try to connect to Web sites using another ISP.

Concerned beta testers were rebuffed, however, in a posting by an AOL staffer who wrote, "We can neither identify nor eliminate all bugs. In some cases on some folks' machines, I believe installing tiddlywinks would probably be a problem."

The class action lawsuit seeks an injunction that would require AOL to disclose the risks of installing 5.0, or be forced to stop shipping it. The suit also seeks $1,000 in damages for each member of the class. AOL estimates that 8 percent of its users also have accounts with other ISPs. Based on AOL's own estimates that more than 10 million people have installed 5.0, possible damages could total in the billions of dollars.

AOL spokesperson Rich D'Amato today said the company is still reviewing its legal options. But he said AOL stands behind the quality of version 5.0, the release of which has generated 20 percent fewer support calls than its predecessor.

"We believe we've made another leap in terms of making this easier to use and more convenient. As regards the suit, we think it has no basis in fact or law," D'Amato said.

The lawsuit also contends that AOL has interfered with the contractual relationship between affected users and their other ISPs.

Indeed, while AOL's support calls may have gone down with the release of 5.0, other ISPs support lines are busy with users who find themselves unable to connect to the ISP after installing AOL 5.0. Prodigy, for example, has fielded "thousands" of such calls, according to Bill Kirkner, chief technology officer. Some problems can be resolved easily, but others require multiple calls to Prodigy support and over an hour of time by both support staff and affected users, he said.

While their support costs have been substantial, Prodigy and other ISPs have yet to take legal action of their own to recoup expenses from getting users back up and running.

According to Kirkner, AOL has disregarded the industry's unspoken credo of doing no harm to another company's software.

"If I was an independent software developer and I released a piece of software that fooled around with the operating system, you'd be calling me a hacker and my software a virus. That's the level of what these folks did," said Kirkner.

Kirkner stopped short of accusing AOL of anti-competitive practices, but he said anti-trust regulators ought to consider the company's handli