AOL members sue over search data release

Three AOL members are suing the company over the release of their search engine records.

Three people have sued AOL over the company's controversial release of member search-engine records, in what their lawyers are billing as the first such lawsuit seeking national class action status.

The three AOL members charge the Time Warner subsidiary with, among other things, privacy violation, false advertising and unjust enrichment.

Two unnamed AOL members residing in California, and Kasadore Ramkissoon, who lives in New York, filed their lawsuit on Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The lawsuit seeks monetary relief for all affected AOL members in the U.S. whose search data was disclosed without consent from January 1, 2004 until the present.

The plaintiffs also ask the court to instruct AOL not to store or maintain users' Web search records, and to destroy the Web search records it currently has.

The lawsuit stems from AOL's decision to post on its research Web site about 20 million search records from about 658,000 of its members, covering the three-month period between March and May.

AOL didn't disclose the names of the members, but it grouped each member's records with a unique number. This made it possible to see what each individual searched for. The data included search queries, as well as Web sites the members clicked on to.

When the issue became a privacy scandal in August, AOL apologized and pulled the data from the Web site, but by then the data set had been downloaded multiple times and the records remain available online.

The records contain sensitive information like credit card, telephone and Social Security numbers, birth dates, full names and addresses. The New York Times tracked down one of the affected members and, with her permission, interviewed and identified her.

The law firm Berman DeValerio Pease Tabacco Burt & Pucillo represents the plaintiffs. A copy of the complaint is posted on the law firm's Web site.

The scandal has had significant repercussions within AOL. Its Chief Technology Officer Maureen Govern resigned and two other employees were fired.

Last week, in an e-mail sent to all employees and obtained by IDG News Service, AOL's Chief Executive Officer Jonathan Miller referred to the incident as "the search data debacle" and announced AOL plans to hire, for the first time ever, a chief privacy officer.

In the e-mail, Miller outlined a reorganization of AOL's business structure, which will include a unit solely dedicated to what he termed the "protection" of AOL consumers.

Last week, in its latest search engine usage study, Nielsen/NetRatings reported that in August, people in the U.S. ran 18.2 percent fewer queries on AOL's search engine, compared with August 2005.

Nielsen/NetRatings didn't venture any explanations for the drop, but industry observers have pointed directly at the search data scandal as the culprit. Among the top five search engine providers, AOL was the only one whose usage share shrunk last month.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission against AOL in August over the search data release.

AOL declined to provide comment for this story.

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Juan Carlos Perez

IDG News Service
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