AOL Takes Another Hit as Users Debate AOL 5.0

SAN FRANCISCO (03/06/2000) - America Online Inc. (AOL) late last week was hit with yet another class-action lawsuit over alleged problems with its AOL 5.0 Internet software. A few disgruntled users who contacted IDG News Service said they will try to join the lawsuit, while other users reported having no problems with the program.

The latest lawsuit, filed Friday in U.S. District Court in Seattle, Washington, alleges that AOL violated federal laws by releasing a version of AOL 5.0 that, without sufficient warning, made changes to customers' computer settings that made it hard for them to connect to a competing ISP (Internet service provider).

The lawsuit seeks national class-action status, and is claiming unspecified damages from AOL on behalf of the millions of users in the U.S. who installed the program, according to a statement from Hagens Berman LLP, the Seattle law firm that filed the suit.

Friday's action follows a spate of similar lawsuits filed in several U.S. states in recent weeks, all of which make similar claims about AOL's software.

One of the lawsuits, filed in Virginia, is asking the court for US$2 billion in damages on behalf of AOL users in that state.

AOL has denied that its software makes it hard for consumers to connect with competing ISPs. Any changes made to the software, which was released last October, were designed to make connecting to the Web a "more seamless experience," an AOL spokeswoman said recently.

A handful of customers today and last week who installed AOL 5.0 stood by the company.

"I'm not sure who is having problems with AOL 5.0, but it has not been me,"said Chris Brossette, an AOL user in Jackson, Mississippi. Brossette wrote in an e-mail message that he installed the software on three PCs -- one at work and two at home. The two home systems connect to the Internet using ISP Earthlink Networks Inc.'s dial-up service.

"I have not had any troubles with getting my other ISP software to work properly," Brossette said. "The problem with most of the users is their lack of knowledge in installing software and not understanding the questions that are being asked" during the installation process, he added.

"I installed AOL 5.0 in (October 1999) and was able to install and connect to MindSpring in (December 1999), so I would have to say that the lawsuits were without merit," agreed John Cooper, a former AOL user in Delaware. Cooper added that he recently switched from AOL to MindSpring Enterprises Inc. because, he said, AOL doesn't support home users who use Microsoft Corp.'s Windows NT, and because he found AOL's service "unreliable."

Another user was less impressed with AOL 5.0, and said she would like to join one of the class-action suits against the company.

"Once I loaded MindSpring onto my computer, I went through two days of frustration trying to get to the MindSpring account because the AOL (software) kept changing my new settings back to AOL server settings," reported Web user Mathea L. Doyle.

Doyle had to delete the AOL program from her PC entirely before she could connect smoothly to MindSpring, she said.

Ideally, software products should require users to confirm that they understand how a program might affect other programs on their PC before they go ahead and install it, according to Ed Woodsome, a partner with the Los Angeles law firm Howrey Simon Arnold & White LLP.

"It's not entirely clear that users of AOL 5.0 weren't provided with such an explanation, but in today's litigious environment, lawyers are going to sue now and ask questions later," Woodsome wrote in a statement regarding the lawsuit.

The lawsuits against AOL highlight how much the world of cyberspace has become like the real world, Woodsome said.

"For a company like AOL, there's a potential plaintiff lurking behind every promotion," he wrote.

In addition to its lawsuit in Seattle, which seeks national class action status, Hagens Berman has filed similar lawsuits at the state level in Washington, Arizona, Oregon and New Jersey. Other law firms have chimed in with actions against AOL in Colorado, California and New York. It is up to the courts in each state to determine whether the lawsuits merit class-action status, a process that could take up to 90 days, a Hagens Berman spokesman said.

Hagens Berman's most recent filing on Friday cites new federal electronic communications laws designed to safeguard Internet users, the firm said.

Hagens Berman has posted more information about the lawsuits on its Web site, at http://www.hagens-berman.com/. AOL, in Dulles, Virginia, can be reached at +1-703-448-8700 or at http://www.aol.com/.

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