AOL Facing New Legal Action Over Latest Software

Enticed by the allure of new bells and whistles, Jane Donofrio was among the
first to download and install AOL version 6 when it was released to the
public October 25. But the Atlanta-based child therapist and longtime AOL
subscriber never got to try out those new features.


“It never connected. I would hear the dialing, the tone, then it would get
as far as ‘Talking to Network,’ and that was it,” said Donofrio, who said
she spent a nightmarish day trying to undo the damage inflicted on her
laptop by the upgrade.


“It never dawned on me that AOL would release a product that was so
obviously buggy. The tech support guy sent me an e-mail of what to try. I had
to reinstall Windows and AOL about five or six times. I was thinking, what
happens if I never get my Internet back?”


The “Talking to Network” bug is among a number of serious networking
glitches in AOL 6 that have plagued some early adopters. While many have
upgraded without a hitch, the numerous complaints on AOL’s message boards
and in Internet newsgroups suggest AOL’s latest software effort could be
shaping up as a painful replay of events of a year ago.
Similar bugs
in AOL version 5 wiped out the networking ability of
numerous users, and landed the big online service in legal trouble.


Thursday, attorneys leading ongoing class-action suits against AOL over
version 5 said the bugs in AOL 6 demonstrate that the company hasn’t learned
its lesson, and the lawyers say they will likely expand their lawsuits to
include the new software.


“I don’t think they learned as a result of the litigation on 5.0. I think
they’ve just gotten a little more arrogant and feel that they can get away
with it, and I think 6.0 will probably become part of the suit,” said Reed
Kathrein, a partner with Milberg Weiss
in San Francisco, which is leading four firms in a consolidated class-action
on behalf of AOL users.


HEAVY-HANDED APPROACH


AOL spokesperson Andrew Weinstein Thursday declined to reveal how many
complaints the company has received about AOL version 6.


“Obviously it has been a tremendously successful launch, and we’ve had very,
very positive user feedback from members who have upgraded to it,” said
Weinstein.


One technical expert who tested the program on behalf of InternetNews.com,
however, believes that AOL’s efforts to avoid a repeat of the 5.0 fiasco may
have backfired and inadvertently created some of the problems encountered in
6.0.


Steve Gibson, CEO of Gibson Research Corp.,
a software development and consulting firm, noted that the new program is a
whopping 28-megabyte download. One reason for the bulk is the slew of
Windows networking adapters and protocols that the AOL client installs on
every PC.


“If you install AOL 6, basically you’re handing over your whole machine’s
networking configuration to them, and they’re just overwriting your entire
network with their cookie-cutter [approach]: ‘This is what we’re going to do
to your computer. Bend over,'” said Gibson.


AOL’s heavy-handed installation strategy has wreaked havoc in particular for
broadband users or those on networks. Vickie Herndon, a medical
transcriptionist in Virginia, reported that she wasted hours jiggering with
software and hardware after AOL 6.0 wiped out her home-office network, which
shares a [email protected] cable connection to the Internet.


“This is my bread and butter. AOL needs to realize that they are not the
only thing out there. I would never use them for an Internet connection for
work — I only use them for their content,” said Herndon, who is now back on
AOL 5.0.


Among the numerous networking components AOL 6 loads on every PC is
Microsoft’s

Virtual Private Networking (VPN) adapter and accompanying
NDISWAN protocol. Precisely why AOL is installing this technology is not
clear, but the decision has created problems for some corporate users like
Bill Natola, a network administrator for an Internet start-up in
Massachusetts.


“They’re not doing the new bindings correctly. It actually caused my machine
to re-boot itself and blue screen. And if you remove the VPN adapter, the
next time you use AOL it will re-install it,” said Natola.


Besides interfering with some configurations, the extensive networking
apparatus forced upon users by AOL 6.0 unnecessarily consumes system
resources, according to Marc Minkin, an MIS director for a manufacturing
firm in South Dakota who primarily uses AOL to access the Internet while
traveling. What’s more, says Minkin, the program’s silent changes to a
system’s network bindings can open security holes for users who’ve enabled
file and print sharing.


“That’s a substantial number of people to put at risk. They’re going to run
down the road like nothing’s wrong, and they’re going to find out one day
that they’ve been hacked into or viruses have been uploaded or God knows
what as a result of this channel being opened. And I think it’s incredibly
dangerous for [AOL] to do that,” said Minkin.


THE KEYWORD IS TROUBLE


While AOL insists version 6 is its best release yet, at least one problem,
the Talking to Network bug, is common enough to merit a patch. The company
has recently created a utility named step5fix.exe, that, according to
instructions that accompany it, “should enable you to connect to the AOL
service and restore your ability to browse the Web.”


Although AOL has set up a special keyword, Step5, that takes users directly
to a download page for the 28-Kbyte utility, it is not mentioned in the
installation notes for AOL 6 or in the list of frequently-asked-questions
for the software.


Donofrio said AOL support representativess she spoke with had no knowledge of the patch.
She learned about it from another AOL user, and the utility enabled her to
roll back to AOL version 5 and restore her network connections.


Ken Yates, an attorney handling a class-action against AOL on behalf of several Maryland-based Internet
service providers, said denials are standard practice for AOL. Yates points
out that a year ago the company shrugged off reports that its version 5
software wiped out some users’ ability to connect to the Internet using
other ISPs. But subsequently in May of this year, AOL agreed to a stipulated
order overseen by a federal court in Miami, Florida. That order called for
AOL to post information about a conflict between AOL 5.0 and the Windows’
Dial-Up Networking software on older Windows 95 systems, and to provide a
link to an upgraded DUN at Microsoft’s site.


Yates noted, however, that AOL has continued to distribute CD-ROMs
containing AOL 5 without warning Windows 95a users that it can disrupt their
non-AOL network access.


“Their allegation is that this is industry practice — the rules of
engagement. Our concern is that if ISPs are replaced, not only will it hurt
our revenues today, but what’s going to happen when AOL takes over
Time-Warner and gets access to their cable? If my user can’t turn on his
computer and get to me, promises of open access become rather moot,” said
Yates.


As with last year’s edition, the release of AOL version 6 occurred despite
warnings by some beta testers. One tester, writing on the private beta
message boards on October 25 bemoaned, “I really can’t believe they released
this today … I really think it’s premature, there are still way too many
problems with this.”


Another beta tester, noting complaints the following day from users on the
service’s public message boards, wrote to fellow testers, ”

Hummm, did we not
tell WinBeta this would happen???”


A DELIBERATE STRATEGY?


Kathrein of Milberg Weiss said that AOL’s networking bugs may not be
intentional, but they are the indirect result of a monopolistic strategy,
details of which he is confident will be revealed during the upcoming
discovery phase of the consumer class action.


“It’s our firm belief that this is all part of the intentional strategy to
grab the desktop. You know, carpet-bomb the world with CDs as soon as
possible. You can’t wait until it’s perfect because you’ll lose market
share, even though testing shows there are still significant problems. And
you get it out there in a way that’s designed to discourage people from
trying to use an alternative ISP,” said Kathrein.


But Gibson, who operates a popular online security screening service called
Shields Up, said the
problems caused by AOL version 6 seem to be largely the result of the
company insulating its unsophisticated users from technical decisions.


“I can’t see anything that seems in any way sneaky or tricky. [AOL] is
massively successful, and one of the things that feeds that success is that
it pretty much works. The flip side is being something of an overlord and
re-installing stuff, but that’s not their typical customer.”

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