FreeIM challenges AOL’s testimony

FreeIM, a national group of America Online Inc. competitors that includes Microsoft Corp., iCast and Tribal Voice, challenged AOL’s testimony Tuesday about its instant messaging service at the July 27 hearing on the proposed merger of AOL and Time Warner Inc.

In a letter to William Kennard, chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which must approve the merger, the group accused AOL of “continued hypocrisy” on the issue of openness. Although AOL licenses its instant messaging service and makes it free to Internet users, it doesn’t allow its users to communicate with users of its competitors’ systems. FreeIM is lobbying for open standards and interoperability in instant messaging.

“AOL’s public position is one committed to open standards, while in practice, the company continues to block consumers from realizing true interoperability,” said Ross Bagully, CEO of Tribal Voice, in the letter.

AOL has cited security reasons and the privacy of its users for its decision to block users of competing instant-messaging services. In response to FreeIM’s letter, an AOL spokeswoman said the approach to interoperability advocated by Bagully and other members of the group would “open up instant messaging to a whole new wave of spamming and hacking.”

“Stripping away all the rhetoric, there are two ways to get to interoperability – the right way, by protecting consumers through a server-to-server approach, or the wrong way, such as Tribal Voice is suggesting,” the AOL spokeswoman said.

In its letter, FreeIM focused on several statements made by AOL at the July hearing, including AOL’s statement that interoperability is still 12 months away. According to FreeIM, however, in July of last year, AOL promised the Internet Engineering Task Force that it would move quickly toward interoperability. However, FreeIM said that a year later, AOL is saying interoperability is still 12 months away.

In addition, FreeIM said that AOL’s demonstration of the different ways companies protect their users missed a critical point: Interoperability allows users to still take advantage of their host companies’ techniques for addressing spam, or electronic junk mail. Interoperability itself doesn’t diminish privacy and security protections provided to AOL users.

“The weight of the evidence makes it clear that the only people who would believe that AOL’s real concern is the privacy and security if its members are the kind of people who believed that East Germany built the Berlin Wall to ‘protect’ its citizens,” said Margaret Heffernan, CEO of iCast.