America Online (AOL) has been hit with a class action lawsuit claiming that the company's latest software disables Internet accounts users have with other companies.
The suit was filed on Monday in US District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, near AOL's headquarters, and seeks class action status on behalf of eight million AOL customers who have upgraded to version 5.0 of AOL's software.
The action follows a number of complaints from AOL customers about problems they have allegedly encountered with the new software.
When installing AOL 5.0, users are required to make a choice as to whether they want AOL as their default browser. If they choose yes, AOL takes over the online functions of the computer.
The suit cites a federal computer crimes law that is generally used to prosecute hackers. That law provides criminal and civil liability for any person that interferes with someone else's computer.
AOL spokesman Rich D'Amato said the company has received very few complaints.
He said: "This lawsuit has no basis in fact or law. AOL software does provide users with the ability to select AOL as their default Internet connection. Windows wants you to name a default Internet connection. But users must make the choice to do so."
He continued: "In fact, the default answer to the question 'Do you want to make AOL your default Internet connection?' is no. Users have to affirmatively ask for AOL and it does not prevent members from accessing the Internet through another Internet provider."
Critics of AOL, however, claim the software can suddenly interfere with connections to other ISPs or business accounts.
"AOL's actions violate a variety of consumer protection acts. The user pays a monthly access fee, but AOL does not allow him to use his ISP. We will be able to prove that AOL knew their product would cause interference at an early stage but still pushed ahead and marketed it," said Fritz Schneider, one of the plaintiffs' lawyers.
The suit seeks to prevent AOL from distributing its latest software "without full disclosure of the effect of its operation on other software", and requires AOL "to disgorge all of the monies it has earned from the distribution of version 5.0".
The suit also seeks three times any actual damages or $1000 for each user who has upgraded to version 5.0.
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