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Liberty Alliance expands membership

The project, which seeks to establish a standard method for online identification, gains five new members and boosts Sun's effort to outgun Microsoft's Passport system.

The Liberty Alliance Project gained five new members Wednesday, boosting Sun Microsystems' effort to outgun Microsoft's Passport online identification system.

The Liberty Alliance Project seeks to establish a standard method for online identification, so a computer user can log on to a Web site once, then have other sites recognize that user as authenticated. Microsoft already offers a single sign-on technology called Passport.

New members include Cingular Wireless, i2 Technologies, Nippon Telegraph and Telephone, SAP and Wave Systems. The companies join the Liberty Alliance as sponsors, meaning they can attend and vote in meetings. The Alliance, launched last September, now has more than 40 members, including United Airlines, Sony, Fidelity Investments, AOL Time Warner and others, according to Michael Barrett, who is vice president of Internet strategy at American Express and a member of the Liberty Alliance management board.

The Alliance also announced a new "affiliate" level of membership intended to boost representation among government agencies and nonprofit organizations, and an "associate" level membership that targets small companies. Affiliate-level membership is free of charge; associate members pay a fee of $1,000 per year, Barrett said.

The Alliance has yet to release a specification for how its technology will work. Barrett said the specification will be available this summer, as was originally planned.

In contrast, the number of Microsoft Passport users jumped to 14 million, from 7 million, between last August and February, according to a survey by market researcher Gartner.

Sun and other Microsoft competitors have waged a steady campaign against Microsoft's Passport as a way to give people a digital identity on the Internet. Sun instead favors a neutral method that's not controlled by a single company. Microsoft in September said it would retool Passport and open it to the broader business market, which could include rivals.

Critics of Passport, including AOL, Sun, privacy groups and state trustbusters, have challenged Microsoft's use of Windows XP and other desktop or Web products to drive Passport adoption.

Barrett downplayed competitive issues between the Liberty Alliance members and Microsoft, saying that board members have invited the software giant to join the Alliance. ?Nothing has been decided. But we have built a very good working relationship with the Passport team,? Barrett said.

Barrett also said that American Express, which took part in Microsoft's launch of .Net My Services, a consumer Web services plan that uses Passport extensively, is still debating how it will support both Passport and .Net My Services, in addition to the Liberty Alliance specification. "Companies that represent consumers tend to be more agnostic as far as things that go. It could be that over time, will see their (Passport's) lower level spec and our higher-level business concerns combined," he said.

Microsoft executives did not immediately respond to requests for comment.