RealTime IT News

AOL's Legal Headaches Continue

Washington State residents have joined the growing list of litigants filing class action lawsuits against America Online Inc.

The Washington suit claims that America Online (AOL) knowingly released its 5.0 software without warning that the installation would change a computer's dial-up networking properties and TCP/IP settings.

The suit also claims that AOL's predatory software prohibits its customers from connecting to the Internet through other Internet service providers.

Seattle attorney Steve Berman filed the Washington suit in King County Superior Court. Renowned for his expertise in national class-action lawsuits, Berman filed suit under the Consumer Protection Act.

Berman said that AOL 5.0 software seizes upon unsuspecting users computers to prohibit them from using other Internet services.

"Users who installed AOL 5.0 expected that they were going to get 500 free hours of faster, better Internet access," Berman said. "But what really happened was that their computers were unknowingly sabotaged so that they could no longer use any Internet service other than AOL."

Berman alleges that the start-up software is a brazen attempt by AOL to hold customer's hostage as long as they are connected to the Internet. He said that customers might not readily change the settings once the installation is complete.

"Once the software was up and running, it changes so many of the systems configurations, the average user had no hope of connecting with anyone else other than AOL," Berman said. "Many who tried to unwind the installation found that it was almost impossible since it affected more than 200 files."

Rich D'Amato, AOL spokesperson, said the lawsuits have no basis in fact or law.

"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."

The final step in the AOL 5.0 installation process allows users to select AOL as their provider of choice. By doing so, users override settings that would permit access to other ISPs.

In order to repair a computer's dial-up properties after installing the AOL 5.0 upgrade, users must re-program their device manager settings. After selecting the network adapter area and double clicking on the AOL adapter, a user may modify the device properties of their connection. If they operate with Microsoft Corp. (MSFT) Windows 95 or 98, users must disable the AOL adapter in order to surf the Internet and still connect to AOL.

The lawsuit is the fourth action filed against America Online this month. Lawyers filed class-action lawsuits in Virginia and California on behalf of 8 million AOL customers using the 5.0 release.

Three independent Internet service providers filed suit against AOL in Baltimore City Circuit Court last week alleging that the latest version of its software cripples existing Internet accounts with rival service providers.

Berman is managing partner of Hagens Berman. His practice adept in class action law suits, as Berman represented 13 states in suits against the tobacco industry.

If the class action suit were approved, Berman would represent all AOL users in Washington State who subscribe to the service and installed AOL 5.0 software. According to Berman, the exact number of people affected by this is yet unknown, but could number in the tens of thousands.