FCC focuses on instant messaging in merger approval

The growing importance of instant messaging and its possible future status as a major means of communication emerged as one of the top issues in the U.S. Federal Communications Commission’s deliberations on the multibillion-dollar merger of America Online Inc. and Time Warner Inc., FCC commissioners said Thursday.

The FCC imposed several conditions on AOL Time Warner in the field of instant messaging that are designed to avoid a repeat of today’s situation in which proprietary instant messaging systems have proliferated and interoperability it almost nonexistent. This means users of each instant messaging system are only able to communicate with others using the same system and must install multiple pieces of software if they want to be reached by everyone.

“Many Americans today are discovering the benefits of instant messaging,” said FCC Chairman William Kennard. “We are concerned that we create an open, competitive environment for instant messaging services, and to do this we must have interoperability of what we call the names and presence database.”

The database, which Kennard said is like the set of telephone numbers that everyone has to have access to in order to communicate by phone, is the directory of instant messaging users and also indicates their status under such categories as online, offline and temporarily away.

Kennard said the FCC is concerned that AOL’s current dominance in the world of text-based instant messaging — the company operates its own AOL Instant Messenger service and acquired the ICQ service — not be leverage into a dominance of future broadband instant messaging services offered to Time Warner Cable subscribers.

To combat this, the FCC is laying down two conditions on AOL Time Warner that it hopes will ensure users of AOL Time Warner cable systems are not forced to use proprietary systems. Its concern focuses on proprietary systems that would either leave users unable to contact people on different networks or force third parties to adopt AOL’s system in order to contact customers on the cable networks.

The provisions center on demonstrating that interoperability exists between AOL Time Warner’s future advanced instant messaging system and competing systems, or that subscribers have alternative systems available to them.

Interoperability has emerged as the single biggest issue in the world of current text-based instant messaging. On the Internet, where common standards are almost universal, the proprietary nature of instant messaging has created a stir. Since the advent of the Internet, open standards have ensured that thousands of computer networks can communicate and applications such as e-mail have operated independent of computer and software platforms.

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a loose group of computer engineers that together decide Internet standards, is busy working on an interoperability system, while two other groups are proceeding with their own solutions. IMUnified, a group of messaging and technology vendors, is working toward publishing its own specification for interoperability. Aimster, a peer-to-peer file-sharing system, lets its users exchange messages with users on multiple platforms.

The efforts to forge a common standard come after a series of skirmishes in the field.

Several rival instant messaging service vendors previously have attempted to give their users access to AOL’s AIM service, among them Microsoft Corp., iCast Corp., Odigo Inc. and Tribal Voice Inc. Each time a competing system offered access to the AIM service, AOL shut it out, citing security concerns.

“Odigo (and other instant messaging providers) have attempted unauthorized access,” Tricia Primrose, a spokeswoman for AOL, told IDG News Service in June, 2000, after the company blocked Odigo. “We consider it, essentially, (as) hacking; we want to protect members’ privacy and security.”

Instant messaging operators were cautious in issuing comment on the FCC’s provisions late Thursday evening. “Most of the instant messaging companies will comment tomorrow, because reviewing the details of the order will take some time,” said Estela Mendoza [CQ], a spokeswoman for Excite@Home Inc. “The devil’s in the details, and we’ll really have to wait until then before making a statement.”

FCC Commissioner Gloria Tristani told a news conference the provisions imposed could have been a lot harsher.

Calling instant messaging “an essential platform for the development of future high-speed Internet-based services that rely on real-time delivery and interaction,” Tristani said that she had advocated more forceful conditions aimed at achieving interoperability but that those imposed “go a long way to protect consumers.”

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