An outdated piece of UK legislation could see software company directors spending time in jail if found guilty of altering users' software without their consent.
In the US this week, users filed a class action lawsuit against America Online (AOL), alleging that the ISP's latest software, AOL 5, disables Internet accounts users have with other providers.
If this allegation was proved in the UK, not only could AOL be sued for damages but its directors could be charged with committing a criminal offence under the Computer Misuse Act 1990. This carries a jail sentence of up to two years.
Dai Davis, an IT adviser at law firm Nabarro Nathanson, said sending out a disk that changes software in an unauthorised manner is a criminal offence under the UK Act, and is not restricted to the civil law as in the US.
"It is a moronic piece of legislation," he said. "For example, someone could be prosecuted for pressing a few buttons on a mobile phone without the owner's consent and get six years. If they pressed the send button they could face two years in prison for changing the computer's memory."
Davis said the AOL case highlights a legal issue facing other software companies. "They blithely assume that people installing the software accept the changes made on their computer systems. Some of those assumptions are questionable," he said.
"AOL software, or any other software that changes the configuration of a computer in an unexpected manner, could mean that AOL is liable for damages and could be prosecuted for a criminal offence in the UK."
AOL has come under fire from some users who claim that problems occur after clicking a yes option to make AOL 5 their default Internet browser. These range from corrupting files to incompatibility with other software.
However, an AOL spokesman said that the default provider feature is designed to simplify users' access to the Net and email.
"Once installed, AOL5 gives the option to have it become your default Internet connection. This is very clearly specified on the screen which asks you to decide 'yes' or 'no'. The 'no' option is highlighted by default, hence the user must switch manually to 'yes'," he said.
"If yes is selected, AOL5 will set Internet Explorer to the optimum settings to use AOL. This means that if there is a dial-up network connection it no longer is default. This is simply fixed for AOL technical support, which involves a five-minute call to restore original settings."
However, many users are not convinced. IT consultant Andrew Gilchrist said that his experience of AOL is poor. "It was the bane of our lives when I worked for an independent company technical support company for about 300 free ISPs. AOL software is designed to connect you to AOL and AOL only," he said.
"We found that users with AOL trying to connect to other ISPs using standard Windows dial-up networking had networking problems. We advised them to scrap AOL."
One unhappy user on an Internet chat forum warns: "Don't upgrade to AOL 5. Many like myself have more than one ISP, AOL 5 will disable the other ISPs and the average user will have a hard time fixing the mess."
Another user said that installing AOL disabled everything, "even my Windows 95. I use Netscape as my browser and that went too. I had to have it serviced and have everything taken out and reinstalled."
Richard Wendland, an analyst with Durlacher Research said: "It is not an uncommon problem for free or virtual ISPs to give out software that disrupts a user's settings."
Phil Costa, an analyst at researcher Giga Information Group agreed. "Setting yourself up as the default browser has been an ongoing battle that has affected Microsoft, Netscape and Freeserve," he said.
Delays to the roll-out of age verification for adult websites hasn't stopped government from considering extending them to more websites
Bluehole confirms rumours that Playstation 4 port is coming on 7 December
Atmospheric iodine works as a significant sink of tropospheric ozone, nullifying the harmful pollutant
A temperature rise of just 1.8° C would melt major ice sheets