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Alleged AOL Bug Triggers Class Action Lawsuit

By Stephen Caswell
Feb 3, 2000 12:00 AM PT

Leading Internet service provider (ISP) and e-commerce giant America Online has been slapped with a class action lawsuit on behalf of subscribers who installed the new AOL version 5.0 software and allegedly encountered a bug that prevented them from using other ISPs.

Alleged AOL Bug Triggers Class Action Lawsuit

The lawsuit, filed January 31st in the U.S. District Court for Eastern Virginia, alleges that AOL "fraudulently concealed" the problems with its new version, and seeks damages "in the millions of dollars" for users who were affected by the bug.

AOL spokesman Rich D'Amato denied Wednesday that version 5.0 of AOL's software prevents customers from using other Internet accounts. He said that the lawsuit has "no basis in fact or law."

Reckless Disregard?

Lloyd Gathings, a partner with Alabama-based Gathings, Kennedy and Associates -- one of the law firms representing the plaintiffs -- said that AOL was aware of the bug in version 5.0, but released it "either intentionally or with reckless disregard of the consequences."

While AOL is denying the bug's existence, numerous beta testers have reported problems when AOL users who operate on LANs or with other Internet ISPs make the upgrade after selecting AOL as their default browser. The bug, which has been labeled the "Evil Connectoid" or "The Upgrade of Death" by some testers, supposedly resets the user's TCP/IP settings that allow them to connect to the Internet.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction that would force AOL to stop shipping the software or to disclose the risks of installing it. The suit also seeks $1,000 (US$) in damages for each member of the class.

Since AOL has estimated that 1.5 to 2 million of its users have accounts with other ISPs, damages could theoretically total as much as $2 billion. Nonetheless, many analysts consider such an outcome unlikely to occur.

Other ISPs Flooded With Calls

The alleged bug has reportedly caused numerous problems for other ISPs, which have been flooded with calls from AOL users who can no longer access the services. While the problem can supposedly be fixed by reconfiguring the TCP/IP settings, many users are reporting long waits to reach customer service departments because of the problem.

According to published reports, Prodigy chief technology officer Bill Kirkner said that his company has fielded thousands of calls from customers that have been bitten by the bug. "If I was an independent software developer and I released a piece of software that fooled around with the operating system, you'd be calling me a hacker and my software a virus," Kirkner reportedly said. "That's the level of what these folks did."

While this lawsuit has been filed on behalf of consumers, analysts are already wondering if a similar lawsuit is in the works on behalf of ISPs whose customer service departments have been working overtime to solve the problem.

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