AOL France are under the cosh in proceedings brought by a consumer group over “unlimited internet access” ad claims. Could the same start to happen here soon?
Who: AOL France and UFC-Que Choisir
When: February 2001
Consumer group UFC-Que Choisir brought proceedings against AOL France over its "unlimited Internet access" plan, claiming false advertising. Following massive demand AOL introduced session timers in the Autumn of 2000. These stopped heavy users from logging on at certain times and cut people off who stayed on-line for extended periods. Also "idle timers" were brought into operation. These disconnected users who failed to respond to pop-up boxes asking for a click if the person wanted to stay on-line.
On 20 February the judge found against AOL France, ordering them to discontinue all the timers. Although AOL has lodged an appeal, it has already lost at least one legal action brought by a disappointed French consumer over AOL’s promotional promises, which said that subscribers would be able to stay on-line for an unlimited time, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Why this matters:
AOL has appealed the Nanterre Court’s verdict in its entirety and continues to call on France Telecom to provide wholesale flat rate connection to its network. In the meantime, while AOL’s experience is certainly not unique amongst ISPs, the case highlights a source of litigation for advertisers which is soon coming to the UK. The source in question is consumer groups, armed with powers to bring advertisers before the courts on charges of failing to comply with consumer orientated laws. The threat flows from the EU Consumer Injunctions Directive. Elsewhere in marketinglaw.co.uk (in Preview) we report on its up and coming implementation in the UK. Once this has happened, entities such as the Consumers’ Association will have powers similar to those exercised by UFC-Que Choisir in the AOL France case. UK advertisers and agencies should be checking their insurance policies!