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

ng of AOL
5.0 complaints as they review its pending merger with Time
Warner.

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