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Messaging rivals call AOL on privacy, security issues

A group of the Internet giant's instant messaging rivals accuses it of using inflated security and privacy concerns to stall progress on interoperability issues.

A group of America Online's instant messaging rivals today accused the Internet giant of using inflated security and privacy concerns to stall progress on technology standards that would allow its services to work with those of competitors.

The charges challenge recent actions and statements by AOL aimed at easing concerns that it intends to use its massive lead in the instant messaging market to indefinitely lock out rivals. AOL has said it is not opposed to interoperability in principle, but it will not open its network without reasonable security guarantees.

Those concerns are a smoke screen, critics alleged today in a white paper signed by 17 companies eager to cut AOL's competitive advantage, including Microsoft, Excite@Home, Qualcomm and CMGI-owned companies iCast, Tribal Voice, and

"This document clearly articulates the fact that AOL's real objective is to stall interoperability," Margaret Heffernan, chief executive of iCast, said in a statement.

The paper is the latest shot at AOL in light of the federal You've got
Time Warner government's ongoing examination of its proposed acquisition of Time Warner. AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) has more members than any other technology, and rivals contend that a closed network stifles innovation and limits the growth of instant messaging.

Proponents of the technology compare its importance to that of the telephone. Instant messaging allows people to send real-time text messages and files. Newer versions even allow people to place phone calls through the network.

AIM, which can be downloaded for free off the Web, has more than 61 million registered members. That figure does not include the instant messenger screen names in AOL's proprietary service. AOL previously reported a total of 91 million screen names for AIM and AOL's proprietary service.

AOL also owns ICQ, which topped 70 million registered members.

Today's document was issued in response to AOL's June proposal for interoperability between AIM and its competitors, which was made to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), the Internet standards body. The white paper also responded to comments recently filed by AOL to the Federal Communications Commission.

The white paper rebuts AOL's reasoning for stopping outside technologies from communicating with AIM. AOL has stated numerous times that it supports interoperability and the widespread adoption of instant messaging. The company says it has been "hesitant" with proposals by other companies because they were lax on security. AOL has blocked attempts by Microsoft, Prodigy, iCast, Tribal Voice and start-up Odigo to tap into AIM because of these privacy and security concerns, the company said.

The paper said AOL used the privacy and security issues "inappropriately," and many of the blocked competitors are "at least as private and secure as AOL's own services." It added that the moves are meant to stall interoperability.

The paper also criticized AOL's IETF filing as inadequate. It said the filing gave no time frame for reaching an open standard and failed to provide details of how technologies can communicate on a single language.

AOL disputed the claims. AOL spokeswoman Kathy McKiernan said the company's Puppet masters: Who controls the Net IETF proposal would allow all instant messaging services to tap one universal network, which would let people enter their screen names and passwords only once. The other proposals require people to enter their information every time they access another company's network, she said.

"This is more misinformation from companies who are not interested in true interoperability that protects consumers," McKiernan said. "AOL's submission to the IETF is crystal clear about how the industry can get true worldwide interoperability while protecting consumers' privacy and security through a server-to-server approach."

Meanwhile, AOL has struck deals with IBM, Novell, Lycos, EarthLink, Apple Computer and Juno Online Services to distribute AIM to their members.

But rivals say those agreements do not allow other technologies to interoperate. Rather, they are simply marketing arrangements to increase AIM's audience, rival companies say.