- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 9, 2000

Kenny Fried has given up.

He is one of hundreds of angry Web users who have been cut off from their Internet service providers after installing America Online Inc.'s Version 5.0 software.

In extreme cases, fixing the problem can cost several hours and hundreds of dollars to correct.

"I don't have the time to waste so I've just used AOL," said the executive vice president of Brotman, Winter, Fried Communications in the District of Columbia. He had installed the AOL software in three office computers and one home computer.

The AOL software cuts off the connection with other Internet providers when the user selects Sterling, Va.-based AOL as the default browser. The problem is so complicated that the cut-off Internet company often has to send technicians to the computer to fix it rather than solving it over the phone.

ZDTV, a cable channel focusing on technology, asked AOL 5.0 users on its Web site, www.zdnet.com, their opinions of the latest software. The question got mixed reviews from more than 150 respondents across the country ranging from software highlights to comments like "AOL just went crazy" and "things started to act funny."

An independent Web designer from Chicago wrote in an on-line message that after he downloaded 5.0, he had to disconnect it to use his other service and restart the computer each time.

"As a Web designer who needs to check the look and functionality of sites on all the major browsers, this is more than just a hassle," he wrote. "At three minutes per reboot times an average of 30 per week, the new AOL is costing me $75 a week in billable design time."

Other complaints ranged from users being unable to open e-mail to Internet service provider (ISP) connections being corrupted.

And it's not just the consumers who are complaining.

The ISPs that have been cut off from their clients are now joining together in a class-action lawsuit against AOL saying that they have damage because the installation of Version 5.0 is preventing their customers from using their services.

It is the second class-action lawsuit filed over the software in the last eight days.

AOL called the lawsuit "frivolous" in a statement.

The company claims that users have the option to select their default Internet connections a feature that was developed in response to member feedback.

AOL has posted instructions on line for subscribers who want to undo the default settings, or users can call the company, AOL said. However, its members are "adopting AOL 5.0 faster" than previous software and requests for technical help are "running at an all-time low," according to the statement.

The ISPs, on the other hand, say their tech support teams are being overwhelmed with requests to fix a problem that they didn't create.

"I see indifference from AOL that frankly makes me mad," said John Dvorak, director of technology for CapuNet, one of the named plaintiffs in the ISP suit. "AOL is making no effort to help."

CapuNet, a high-speed commercial ISP in Rockville, Md., has about 1,000 company clients, which could have thousands of different users. Mr. Dvorak said many of his clients don't have the time or the technological know-how to fix the problem. The tech teams at many ISPs like CapuNet are spending hours on the phone talking users through the problem.

"We don't have much of a [profit] margin to sit on the phone for two hours," he said. "That will kill a company."

AOL's 5.0 software also is putting a strain on the providers' relationships with their customers. When they call for help, upset about the situation, the ISPs try to convince the users that the problem stems from AOL's software.

"The client leaves you with an uncomfortable feeling which does affect the relationship," Mr. Dvorak said.

The latest lawsuit, which also names Washington-area providers Digizen and Millkern Communications as plaintiffs, is the second class-action lawsuit filed against AOL in eight days. On Jan. 31 the law firm of Yates & Schneider filed an $8 billion lawsuit on behalf of the 8 million people who may be affected by the 5.0 software.

"We don't think the lawsuits have any basis in fact or law," said AOL deputy general counsel Randall Boe.

Nonetheless, hundreds of e-mails and telephone calls began pouring in from angry consumers and ISPs after the first lawsuit was filed, said Fritz Schneider, partner at the Gaithersburg, Md., firm, which filed both lawsuits. A Web site (www.classactionversion5.com) was subsequently created to keep consumers and ISPs advised about the lawsuit, as well as tell about their own experiences.

"For a long time we thought [AOL] was too big to stop," Mr. Dvorak said. "We'll use this as a way for AOL to wake up, admit this is going on and help us out."

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