AOL joins Liberty Alliance

America Online Inc. agreed to join the Liberty Alliance Project on Tuesday, giving a boost to this initiative to build a user-authentication system for the Internet and provide an option to Microsoft Corp.'s competing Passport authentication technology.

Launched in September by Sun Microsystems Inc. and other companies and IT vendors such as Nokia Corp. and General Motors Corp., the Liberty Alliance is working to build a common technology that enables Web users to enter only once the personal information they will need to access password-protected Web sites and perform other online transactions. The Liberty Alliance is also aiming to make the service decentralized so that it isn't governed by any one company.

AOL will become the 34th member of the coalition, paving the way for its about 32 million subscribers to eventually use the Liberty Alliance service. Competitors have raised concerns over Microsoft's Passport system, the biggest rival to the Liberty Alliance system, arguing that one company should not control authentication on the Internet. Technical experts have also voiced opposition to single sign-on services in general, arguing that the security technology behind these services is weak. For example, a security expert already discovered a major hole in the Passport electronic wallet that allowed him to gain access to a user's credit card information.

Sun has been one of the most vocal opponents of Passport, arguing that Microsoft could wield too much control over personal data on the Internet.

AOL Chief Executive Officer Barry Schuler said in a statement that its admission into the group "will encourage both competition and consumer choice... while protecting privacy and security."

A spokesman for the company added that AOL "strongly encourages" Microsoft to take part in this system as well. "We believe that if Microsoft chooses to do so it would be a strong indication that it was moving away from its efforts to control this new space," the spokesman said.

Microsoft has relayed its own plans to create a shared and open single sign-on service with Passport. The company said in September that it would begin using a secure authentication technology called Kerberos in Passport that would make it compatible with other systems that also use Kerberos. Microsoft is encouraging its corporate customers and rival authentication services to employ the technology, an open standard that was originally developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

AOL already offers its users two authentication services: the first, called Screen Name Service, lets users sign on to AOL's Internet services and partner sites without re-entering a password; and the second one, an electronic wallet service called QuickCheckout, allows users to quickly make a purchase online at participating e-commerce Web sites. AOL also said it will continue developing a new authentication service, dubbed "Magic Carpet." The AOL authentication services will be interoperable with the Liberty Alliance system.

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