Netscape, owned by America Online (AOL), has been slapped with a class action lawsuit which alleges that it is using a feature of its web browser to "eavesdrop" on users.
The lawsuit was originally filed by one individual in July, but three more plaintiffs were added last week - and the number could extend to millions of other users, according to class action lawyers in New York.
At issue is Netscape's SmartDownload feature, which is used to help users download files from the internet. The software works automatically whenever users download items from the web, and was inherited by AOL as part of its acquisition of Netscape in 1998.
The lawsuit was originally filed by lawyers on behalf of Christopher Specht, who runs several websites featuring files that users can download. Specht claims that SmartDownload captures and transmits uniquely identifiable information back to Netscape whenever users visit a website and download software.
"Netscape is using SmartDownload to eavesdrop," the lawsuit claims. "It is using SmartDownload to intercept and send to defendants information about a communication to which defendants are not party."
Joshua Rubin, an attorney at law firm Abbey, Gardy and Squitieri - which is acting on behalf of the plaintiffs - confirmed that the complaint has been amended to include three more individuals and could also represent millions of others, including website owners and users.
The lawsuit seeks class action status on behalf of everyone maintaining websites that provide files that can be downloaded using SmartDownload. It also seeks an order prohibiting Netscape from continuing to gather information about software downloaded by users.
An AOL spokesman confirmed that SmartDownload is included in Netscape but said that it is used only for technology support purposes. "We've never used or accessed any information about SmartDownload users or files and we plan to take it [SmartDownload] out of future versions of the product," he said. Netscape was unavailable for comment.
David Sobel, general counsel of US public privacy group The Electronic Privacy Information Center, said there is a growing trend toward companies being sued for the online collection of information.
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