AOL faces federal class-action suit in privacy snafu

A law firm has filed a federal class-action lawsuit against AOL, claiming the Internet service provider should pay damages to the more than 650,000 members whose privacy was violated when AOL posted their search query data on the Web. Berman DeValerio Pease Tabacco Burt & Pucillo filed the suit Sept. 22 in San Francisco on behalf of three AOL members. The firm is also seeking other members willing to join the lawsuit. The suit is the first class action filed in federal court as a result of the privacy snafu. About 20 million search queries of 658,000 members was posted July 31 on an AOL website and offered to academics for research purposes. Members' names were encrypted, but news media, such as The New York Times, was able to identify people based on the information posted, which included addresses and other personal information. Even though AOL removed the posting, it was on the web long enough to be picked up by other websites, reposted and made searchable. AOL apologized for the disclosure, which led to the firings of a researcher and supervisor. Chief Technology Officer Maureen Govern resigned, but the company declined to say whether her leaving was connected. Despite the apology, the law firm said AOL, a unit of Time Warner Inc., has done "nothing to remedy the situation." In addition, "AOL has neither taken steps to make secure similar information it has collected nor stopped collecting this type of information from its members," the firm said in a statement. AOL officials declined to comment. C. Oliver Burt III, a partner at the law firm, said Tuesday the judge would decide the amount of damages each plaintiff deserves. The firm, however, would argue that AOL should pay for failing to uphold its contractual promise to protect members' privacy. "All these people who signed up and took the service didn't get what they thought they were going to get," Burt said. "They didn't get privacy." Besides the money that could be collected by the firm and plaintiffs, the case could help clarify the extent search-query data is protected under federal and California laws, Burt said. "It's a lot more than just money," the lawyer said. The suit claims AOL violated the federal Electronics Communications Privacy Act and several California laws, including the state's Online Privacy Act. California residents could be eligible for higher damages because the state laws carry higher penalties. The AOL privacy breach rallied advocates seeking more federal oversight in the collection and storage of personal information gathered over the Internet. Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., introduced a bill this year that would prohibit companies from storing certain types of search data. No responsibility can be taken for the content of external Internet sites.

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