AOL Class-Action Suits Pile Up

America Online (AOL) has been slapped with two more class-action lawsuits. The lawsuits allege that the latest version of AOL's Internet software makes changes to customers' PCs that make it hard, if not impossible, for them to connect to alternative ISPs (Internet service providers).

The most recent lawsuits were filed yesterday in New Jersey and on Teusday in Oregon, and seek class-action status on behalf of all users in those US states who installed AOL version 5.0. They follow similar lawsuits filed earlier this year in Washington, Arizona, Virginia, Colorado and Ohio. The Virginia lawsuit is seeking $US8 billion in damages.

The claims made in all of the lawsuits are similar, and relate to the most recent version of AOL's Internet software -- AOL version 5.0 -- released in October of last year.

AOL failed to inform customers that installing the AOL 5.0 upgrade would make "dramatic changes" to their operating systems and would interfere with their ability to connect to competing ISP networks, according to a statement issued today by Hagens Berman LLP, a law firm handling four of the lawsuits, including the two most recent filings.

"AOL 5.0 promised users 500 free hours of faster, better Internet access," Attorney Steve Berman said in the statement. "But in reality, many novice users found that once they installed AOL 5.0, removing the software was nearly impossible. This was a brazen attempt by AOL to hold these customers hostage as long as they wanted to connect to the Internet."

After filing the initial lawsuit against AOL in Washington, Hagens Berman claims to have received "hundreds" of phone calls and e-mails from disgruntled AOL users across the company, prompting the law firm to expand the original lawsuit to the other US states.

AOL didn't immediately return a call about the latest lawsuits. In the past, the company has vehemently denied any wrongdoing, arguing that the features added to AOL 5.0 were requested by AOL members and are designed to provide them with more seamless access to the Internet.

Users must grant permission before any changes are made to their computer settings, and any users who agree to the changes inadvertently can find instructions in the AOL help area about how to change them back, according to AOL. The company maintains that users can use multiple ISPs with AOL version 5.0.

The various courts have yet to approve class-action status for any of the lawsuits filed against the ISP, a spokesman for Hagens Berman said in a phone interview today. He added that the approval process typically takes 30 to 90 days. The number of users represented in each lawsuit is expected to run into the tens of thousands, the spokesman said.

The four suits filed by Hagens Berman seek unspecified monetary damages. A different law firm which filed a similar complaint in January in the US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, is asking the court for more than $8 billion in damages on behalf of users in that state.

In cases where several law firms file separate lawsuits alleging the same offense, the courts typically appoint one of the law firms to act as the lead litigator. The two lawsuits filed were filed in Oregon Circuit Court in Multnomah County and New Jersey Superior Court.

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James Niccolai

PC World

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