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Florida judge approves class-action lawsuit against America Online
At issue: 'Pop-up' advertisements
MIAMI (CNN) -- A Florida judge has approved a class-action, multimillion-dollar lawsuit against the world's largest Internet service provider, America Online, on behalf of hourly subscribers who viewed so-called "pop-up" advertisements.
Miami attorney Andrew Tramont said AOL blocks customers' access to its services during the time that the pop-up advertisements are on the screen. About 2.5 million AOL hourly plan subscribers since 1994, he maintained, should not be forced to pay for that time.
Internet pop-up advertisements are unsolicited messages programmed by Web sites to unexpectedly "pop up" on a viewer's screen, interrupting material a viewer may be accessing at the time.
"Plaintiffs have established that bringing this case as a single class action is superior to requiring each class member to sue on an individual basis," Miami-Dade County Circuit Court Judge Fredricka Smith wrote in her order, dated June 20.
AOL allows users to disable pop-ups
AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose said she was not familiar with the lawsuit and could not comment on it. But she did say that AOL in general does not receive many complaints about pop-up ads.
When users sign on to the service, Primrose said, they are given "choices of things like pop-ups," Primrose said. "AOL makes it very easy for its subscribers to turn off pop-ups, so that they don't receive them."
But Tramont said customer ability to disable pop-ups was a recent development at AOL. "That's a new thing," he said. "Our (lawsuit) period goes back to 1994. That wasn't the case for the five-year period we're covering."
In addition, he said, the process of disabling the pop-ups is complex. "And once it's disabled, it comes on automatically again after a certain period of time," Tramont said.
AOL charges hourly subscribers for each hour of use after they complete their monthly allotment of three or five hours, depending on their service plan, according to Primrose.
Plaintiff's lawyer: 'Time adds up'
Only after a customer reads through a series of advertisements, or clicks the "No thanks" button, is the pop-up removed from the screen and the user is able to resume using AOL's services, such as e-mail or the Internet. "If you have kids and they read slowly, or they read each ad, that time adds up," said Tramont.
Tramont said the practice amounts to charging twice for the same product. "AOL gets money from advertisers, then money from subscribers, so they're making double on the same time," he said.
Tramont said he would likely seek $15 million to $20 million in damages, along with changes in AOL's business practices.
"AOL reaps millions and millions of dollars each year in advertising revenue because it has this captive audience of subscribers who are bombarded with these ads," Tramont said. "For AOL to charge its subscribers for the time spent having to wade through this largely useless information, while at the same time collecting huge advertising fees, is double-dipping and simply wrong."
"AOL should put its advertisements at the end of the session, and ask customers: 'Do you want to look at our ads now?'" Tramont said. "'If so, you will be charged for the time spent doing so.' Then those customers who aren't willing can terminate their session, and those who are can continue."
AOL serves 23 million subscribers, making it the world's largest Internet service provider.
Shareholders of AOL and Time Warner voted overwhelmingly on Friday in favor of merging the two companies. The merger currently faces approval by the U.S. government. Time Warner is the parent of Turner Broadcasting, which owns CNN.com.
AOL class-action suits pile up
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