America Online Inc. is the target of a class action that accuses its Netscape Communications Corp. subsidiary of violating federal privacy laws.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York by Abbey, Gardy & Squitieri on behalf of Christopher Specht, alleges that AOL is illegally tracking Web surfers, in violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. According to the complaint, Netscape's SmartDownload software program, which is distributed to users of Netscape's Communicator software package, secretly monitors downloads of .exe and .zip files from Web sites. The lawsuit, filed last Friday, alleges that Netscape transmits information about the files back to itself, along with an identifying software cookie lodged in each copy of Netscape's Navigator Web browser.
"Netscape is using SmartDownload to eavesdrop," says the complaint. "It is using SmartDownload to intercept and to send to defendants information about a communication to which defendants are not a party." AOL has yet to comment on the lawsuit.
In the absence of broad federal Internet privacy laws, Web surfers have resorted to private lawsuits like this one to compel companies to change their data-handling practices. DoubleClick Inc., a leading Internet ad server, said in a May filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it faced 15 private class actions, as well as one brought on behalf of California residents. DoubleClick is also under investigation by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and the Michigan attorney general's office.
The complaint against AOL and Netscape demands a jury trial and asks for an unspecified damage award. It is unknown whether Specht is joined by anyone in his lawsuit or tilting at the companies by himself.