AOL members sue over search data release

Suit accuses company of privacy violation, false advertising, unjust enrichment

Three AOL LLC members have sued the company over its controversial release of member search-engine records, in what their lawyers are billing as the first such lawsuit seeking national class-action status.

The three members are charging the Time Warner Inc. subsidiary with, among other things, privacy violation, false advertising and unjust enrichment.

Two unnamed AOL members residing in California and Kasadore Ramkissoon, who lives in New York, filed their lawsuit on Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.

The lawsuit seeks monetary relief for all affected AOL members in the U.S. whose search data was disclosed without consent from Jan. 1, 2004, to the present.

The plaintiffs also ask the court to instruct AOL not to store or maintain users' Web search records and to destroy the Web search records it currently has.

AOL declined to provide comment for this story.

The lawsuit stems from AOL's decision to post on its research Web site about 20 million search records from about 658,000 of its members, covering the three-month period between March and May.

AOL didn't disclose the names of the members, but it grouped each member's records with a unique number. This made it possible to see what each individual searched for. The data included search queries and the Web sites the members clicked to.

When the issue became a privacy scandal in August, AOL apologized and pulled the data from the Web site. But by then, the data set had been downloaded multiple times, and the records remain available online.

The records contain sensitive information such as credit card, telephone and Social Security numbers, birth dates, full names and addresses. The New York Times tracked down one of the affected members and, with her permission, interviewed and identified her.

Berman DeValerio Pease Tabacco Burt & Pucillo represents the plaintiffs. A copy of the complaint is posted on the law firm's Web site (download PDF).

The scandal has had significant repercussions within AOL. Chief Technology Officer Maureen Govern resigned, and two other employees were fired.

Last week, in an e-mail sent to all employees and obtained by IDG News Service, AOL CEO Jonathan Miller referred to the incident as "the search data debacle" and announced AOL plans to hire, for the first time, a chief privacy officer.

In the e-mail, Miller outlined a reorganization of AOL's business structure, which will include a unit solely dedicated to what he termed the "protection" of AOL consumers.

Last week, in its latest search-engine usage study, Nielsen/NetRatings reported that in August, U.S. users ran 18.2% fewer queries on AOL's search engine compared with August 2005.

Nielsen/NetRatings didn't venture any explanations for the drop, but industry observers have pointed directly to the search-data scandal as the culprit. Among the top five search-engine providers, AOL was the only one whose usage share fell for the month.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a complaint with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission against AOL in August over the search-data release.

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