Users Say AOL 5.0 Deep-Sixes Hard Drives

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If you've got AOL 5.0, you may have a big problem. That is, if you're anything like the scores of disgusted AOL customers who filed an $8 billion class action suit against the Internet giant Wednesday, claiming the 5.0 version of AOL's software interferes with some computers' operating systems and alternative Internet service providers. When AOL 5.0 is loaded onto computers, the suit alleges, the software infiltrates the system and can strong-arm other ISPs and other applications right out of commission. AOL officials say the suit, which was filed in a court near AOL's headquarters in Dulles, Va., has "no basis in fact or law," and cite the message that pops up when their software is first installed, asking users if they would like AOL to become their "default" ISP.

AOL shouldn't count on an outpouring of public sympathy. Consumers who are already on edge after the Microsoft revelations won't be kind if they think fellow computer giant AOL is playing dirty. "This maneuver is really aggressive on the part of AOL," says TIME senior editor Philip Elmer-DeWitt. "These guys hold a larger share of the market than all the other ISPs combined, and they have to behave responsibly." As new Internet users bang their heads against their keyboards in desperation, the last thing they want to worry about is whether their service provider is going to infiltrate their hard drive in some vaguely suspicious way. "This behavior hits people at one of their most sensitive spots," says Elmer-DeWitt. "Setting up an ISP connection is something people want to do only once." And while AOL (which has announced a planned merger with Time Warner, the parent company of TIME Daily) can take comfort in the fact that users can opt out of AOL domination by answering "no" to the set-up query, if this case has teeth, such a small concession won't be enough to quell lawyers' lust for dollars — or the public's appetite for seeing an Internet behemoth squirm.