SmartDownload’s Hand in the Cookie Jar

It seems Netscape and parent
America Online have a little egg on their faces.
But AOL suits are sticking to their pat “totally without merit” response to
a federal class action lawsuit that claims the eight hundred pound
gorilla’s Netscape sibling compromised consumer privacy with its SmartDo
browser add-on.

If that sounds awfully familiar, it’s because you’ve heard it before from
the world’s largest ISP. Back when another class action suit was brought
against AOL, then alleging that the ISP’s new AOL 5.0 browser disabled
alternate service providers housed on users’ PCs, the response was
identical – “totally without merit.”

I really liked the idea behind the SmartDownload innovation when I used it
a couple of years ago. But these days, with “always on” broadband, the
add-on is doomed to go the way of the Do-Do. As it turns out, Netscape’s
SmartDownload does indeed retrieve information about the download, without
the user’s knowledge nor permission. And just get a load of the official
caught-with-their-pants-down response. A spokesman for AOL claims that the
info, which includes what types of files users are downloading, was
designed to give the IT guys over at Netscape better insight into which
files were most difficult to download – especially those of the pesky
Microsoft Internet Explorer variety, no doubt.

AOL’s mouthpiece went on to say that the browser-maker never actually
looked at any of the info and that it was regularly put curbside for
garbage pickup. Now I’m starting to wonder aloud whether AOL officials are
magna cum laude graduates of the Bill Clinton charm school. Dodge
everything unless they manage to nail your foot to the floor – then run
around in circles.

To be honest, you can’t blame the company. The potential fallout from a
breach of privacy on this scale has been well-documented.
DoubleClick nearly wound up with a bevy of
states’ Attorney Generals as unwelcome houseguests when it came to light
that the online ad agency had ambitious plans to track Web surfers using
its newly acquired Abacus Direct
database. Not inclined to follow in Microsoft’s
legal footsteps, DoubleClick did the right thing – got on bended knee and
cried like a baby – but not before its brand took a black eye.

It’s not that this class action suit will ever actually find its way into
America Online’s pocketbook. Instead, the real damage could be to its brand
if this modest brushfire is allowed to spread. Having Netscape monitor my
super-secretive downloads isn’t worth $10,000 a head in any court of law,
but it could potentially raise the paranoia factor particularly amongst new
users boarding the information superhighway. Translation: America Online’s
target demographic.

In the meantime, I’ll just continue using Internet Explorer, because in my
opinion, it’s a better browser. And will America Online or Netscape ever
‘fess up to having their proverbial hand in the cookie jar? Well, that
depends on what your definition of “fess” is.

Any questions or comments, love letters or hate mail? As always, feel
free to forward them to [email protected].

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