WASHINGTON (06/15/2000) - America Online Inc.'s dominance of the instant messaging market through its AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) and ICQ services has attracted the attention of federal investigators reviewing AOL's merger with Time Warner Inc.
Antitrust enforcers at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) asked AOL in a June 9 letter to supply information about its activity in instant messaging, including its work toward creating an interoperability standard.
Among the information the FCC is seeking are details about AOL's cooperation with other instant messaging providers on creating the standard and whether customers of other instant messaging products can connect with customers of AOL's instant messaging products.
Competitors in the instant messaging market, including Microsoft Corp.'s MSN Messenger, iCast Corp.'s iCaster and Tribal Voice Inc.'s PowWow, have complained to the FCC and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission because AOL has refused to let people who use their instant messaging products communicate with people who use AIM and ICQ. [See "AOL/TW Merger Refuels Messaging Battle," May 17.]The FTC, which is also reviewing the AOL/Time Warner merger, has been in touch with officials of at least one of those competitors -- iCast -- and is trying to schedule a meeting to discuss instant messaging, according to Bill Golden, a spokesman for iCast.
"We are going to talk to the FTC as part of their investigation in the next week or so," Golden said in a phone interview Thursday.
An FTC spokeswoman declined to comment on the review. An FCC spokeswoman also declined to comment, but said that all of the documents related to the proposed merger are being posted at an FCC Web site, http://www.fcc.gov/csb/.
In the latest skirmish between AOL and an instant messaging competitor, AOL this week blocked Odigo Inc.'s Odigo Messenger from interacting with AIM users. [See "AOL Blocks Odigo's IM Service," June 12.] Odigo responded with a news release on Wednesday in which it said Odigo Messenger users could download a patch for free at the Odigo Web site that restored interoperability between the Odigo Messenger and AOL Messenger.
AOL's AIM and ICQ control 90 percent of the instant messaging market, according to an iCast estimate.
AOL is confident that the investigation won't create an issue that threatens the planned merger with Time Warner, said Tricia Primrose, a spokeswoman for AOL, in a phone interview Wednesday. The company still expects the merger to achieve final government approval in the fourth quarter of this year, she added.
One reason AIM and ICQ do not work with each other or other products is because there are no standards for instant messaging, Primrose said, adding that AOL hopes the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) standard will avoid the unforeseen problems that arose when interoperability was established for e-mail.
"We want to make sure that in this process important issues like privacy and security are front and center," Primrose said.
Thursday is the deadline for submitting proposals for the Instant Messaging and Presence Protocol (IMPP) to the IETF. Vijay Saraswat, chairman of the IETF's working group on the IMPP, said in an e-mail that a summary of the proposals would be released later on Thursday.
AOL, in Dulles, Virginia, is at +1-703-448-8700 or at http://www.aol.com/; iCast, based in Woburn, Massachusetts, can be reached at 781-994-4100 or found on the Web at http://www.icast.com.