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AOL Will Remove 'Spying' Feature from Netscape, Report Says

6 August 2000

America Online Inc [NYSE: AOL] will remove a feature of its Netscape browser's SmartDownload technology that has alarmed privacy advocates and spawned at least one class action lawsuit, a report said.

In late June, New Jersey photographer and Webmaster Christopher Specht filed a lawsuit against AOL, which purchased Netscape Communications in 1999 for $10 billion, claiming the company was using the popular file-download module to "spy" on browser users as they retrieve certain kinds of files from servers across the Internet.

A number of security experts have since looked closely at how the SmartDownload feature works and confirmed that the system forwards to a Netscape server information on files it helps users download via the Web, even when those files are not hosted on Netscape or AOL servers.

A report from the Reuters news agency Friday quoted AOL spokesman Andrew Weintsein as saying the company plans to remove the tracking feature from SmartDownload.

Specht's lawsuit, filed in US District Court in New York, claims that kind of monitoring of third-party communications contravenes both the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).

Specht's lawyer, Joshua Rubin, told Newsbytes Friday that three others have been added to the beginnings of a class-action suit in addition to Specht.

Rubin said he has had no communication from AOL and that the company hasn't informed him that it would be removing the tracking feature from future versions of SmartDownload.

At the Web site of Rubin's law firm, New York's Abbey, Gardy & Squitieri, Netscape users who think they might qualify as part of a class-action lawsuit can submit their contact information.

The lawsuit argues that the ECPA applies in cases where electronic communication has been intercepted and where the contents of such intercepted communications is used.

Statutory penalties under the ECPA can be up to $10,000. The CFAA is being invoked because that law prohibits unauthorized access to a computer for interstate communication. In this case, Specht claims, AOL gained unauthorized access to his computer through its download-tracking technology.

AOL has said it has never used the data generated by SmartDownload. In addition, the company said the purpose of the download logging was to backup the operation of the software itself which, among other things, allows users to restarted downloads that fail before they are completed.

The SmartDownload technology has been available as part of the Netscape offering since version 4.7 and was originally created as "Download Demon" by NetZip. That company was purchased by RealNetworks Inc. [NASDAQ: RNWK] and the technology is part of its RealDownload product. RealNetworks licensed the technology to Netscape for its SmartDownload.

Specht's Web site is at www.lawphoto.com. Abbey, Gardy & Squitieri is at www.a-g-s.com.

Reported by Newsbytes, www.newsbytes.com.

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