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The law checks on AOL

Representatives of 20 state attorneys general meet to discuss America Online's service problems.

America Online's (AOL) service problems are so pervasive now that several state attorneys general called a special meeting to address legal issues arising from the situation.

Representatives of 20 attorneys general met in Chicago today with AOL executives to discuss a flood of consumer complaints against the nation's largest online service. Addressing one of the top concerns at the meeting, AOL spokeswoman Tricia Primrose said the company's massive advertising campaign--blamed for bringing in new subscribers to its already overburdened network--had ended Sunday.

"We had a good, constructive meeting today and are cooperating with the attorneys general and expect to work everything out with them in a mutually agreeable manner," Primrose said after the session ended late this afternoon. "Our priorities are exactly the same as the attorneys generals': to provide the fastest access and the best service possible to our members."

She added that the company will work with the state authorities on an "ongoing basis."

The impromptu daylong meeting was called because of a barrage of complaints from consumers throughout the country. At least half a dozen lawsuits have been filed against AOL, accusing the company of failing to live up to its service contract.

"We've been getting a lot of complaints," Florida Assistant Attorney General Jack Norris told CNET earlier in the day. "We're concerned that there is still advertising going on for new customers while the current customers are having difficulty accessing the service for which they paid."

Last week, AOL chief executive Steve Case said the company would stop advertising to alleviate the crush of online users, but complaints persisted about the online service's ubiquitous television campaign. Consumers have also complained that it's extremely difficult to cancel AOL service, a charge that has beset the company for several months.

Although the meeting seemed unusual, it is not in fact uncommon for state attorneys general to meet with a large consumer company under such circumstances, according to Jim Haney, spokesman for the Wisconsin attorney general. AOL, in particular, has become a lightning rod for the problems facing online services, which increasingly are being scrutinized like phone companies or electric utilities when it comes to customer service.

Norris characterizing today's talks as "very frank" but would not elaborate.

AOL acknowledged many of the problems but said it is moving quickly to alleviate them and is committed to spending $350 million to upgrade its network. In the meantime, the service has asked members to limit their usage whenever possible.

Nevertheless, Norris said the attorneys general want to find out if any laws relating to unfair and deceptive trade practices were violated. "We think the problem needs immediate attention, and we think the company's here because they agree it needs attention," Norris said.

The attorneys general aren't yet planning to sue. "At this point, litigation isn't being threatened," Haney said. "Our concern is that, if consumers have purchased a product and aren't receiving the product, is that in any way a false representation to consumers?"

Last year, the group of attorneys general sent a letter to AOL to protest the company's procedure for switching pricing plans. As a result, AOL agreed to refund money to members whose bills were automatically raised when the company went to flat-rate pricing in December. No legal action was taken by the states.

Internet Editor Jeff Pelline contributed to this report.