AOL: Instant Messaging Interoperability is a Non-Issue

Earlier in June, the Federal Communications
requested that America Online
explain its stance on instance messaging, in light of its proposed
merger with Time Warner Inc.

Royce Dickens, FCC Cable Service Bureau deputy chief of the policy and
rules division, probed America Online’s pledge to develop
an interoperability standard for instant messaging, and if AOL was actively
working to set such standards.

In its reply to the
Commission earlier this week, AOL noted that it pioneered the concept of
instant messaging in 1985 and unveiled the first service to its members in
1989. At that time, instant messaging was available only to AOL
subscribers, according to the firm’s attorneys.

AOL said it recognized the popularity of its proprietary instant messaging
service in 1997 and began giving away for free to anyone on the Web.

Since then, AOL has also entered more than a dozen royalty-free license
agreements with other companies-including Lotus, Lycos Inc., EarthLink Inc. and
other Internet service providers.

Additionally, AOL stated that it has and continues to support efforts to
create an open and interoperable standard that would allow users to
exchange instant messages across different instant messaging networks.

To that end, AOL submitted its proposal to the Internet Engineering Task Force about how
to best achieve the goal of interoperability mid-June.

AOL’s proposal included the architecture to design a worldwide instant
messaging system. In doing so, AOL legal representatives said the proposal
represents a significant step toward the development of detailed protocols
for implementing full instant messaging interoperability.

Rival instant messaging firms quickly challenged AOL’s integrity and
acceptance of developing an open standard.

At the same time AOL’s IETF proposal was submitted, it was playing a
cat-and-mouse game resisting unauthorized attempts by Odigo Inc. to access its instant
messaging network.

Avner Ronen, Odigo vice president of strategic design, scoffed at AOL’s
professed desire for open standards.

“What AOL has posted is no more than an outline for interoperability,”
Ronen said. “On the surface, great, they are committed. However, they have
claimed commitment for over one year now. This outline has no time-frame
and no specific architecture. AOL’s announcement does not bring us any
closer to a standard platform.”

AOL said that allowing outside companies to access its instant messaging
servers would jeopardize the security and privacy of its 23 million members
and 50 million instant messaging users.

AOL legal representatives alleged that had e-mail protocols been as
deliberate as its instant messaging system, unsolicited e-mail, or spam,
and e-mail borne viruses would not afflict the online community today.

The legal team of Peter Ross, Wiley, Rein & Fielding, and Arthur Harding,,
Fleischman and Walsh, L.L.P., informed the FCC that the best way to access
alternative instant messaging providers is to secure a royalty-free
licensing agreement with AOL.

“AOL does not demand payment in exchange for use of its IM technology.
Likewise, AOL does not pay for access to other providers’ customers,” the
lawyers wrote.

AOL’s legal team contends that because most of the instant messaging
services are free to use, consumers can choose the program-or programs-that
best meet their needs. Even without interoperability, Internet users canex

change instant messages, regardless of their preferred instant messaging

To do so, consumers must download a multitude of programs to interact with
non-AOL instant messaging users. AOL contends that such a system opens up
consumers to security issues, because they must disclose their passwords
whenever they send messages across systems.

AOL told the FCC it has the best approach for developing worldwide instant
messaging interoperability. Its proposed architectural design resolves the
technical, security, and privacy-related challenges of building a secure
and open system.

While AOL attempts to make instant messaging a non-issue with the FCC so it
can obtain the go-ahead to acquire Time Warner, Americas
largest online service provider remains steadfast in its commitment to
guaranteeing the privacy and security of its instant messaging users.

This commitment to security has been contested in other areas of AOL’s

While AOL members are assured at every point of contact that their
information is secure from potential maliciousness, recently shared
information with the public about how easily AOL’s firewalls can be violated.

Kelly Hallissey, benevolent hackers, said AOL has the wrong
attitude about being invulnerable to outside forces.

“They have depended upon their firewall, the premise that this latest
publicized breach is new, is erroneous,” Hallissey said. “It’s the same
technique that has been used for over 1 year. Why didn’t AOL do anything
about it? Why haven’t they closed it yet? They were blindsided with how
widespread the intrusions became. Now, AOL has to playing catch up again.”

Whether AOL’s security breaches remain an issue for the company or the
security hole is simply a lure to catch hackers, the firm clearly restated
its commitment to instant messaging users security and privacy concerns in
its pitch to the FCC.

Although the FCC would not comment on AOL’s explanation of its instant
messaging services, the “hands off” policy stance that permeates the
federal regulators approach to Internet issues will likely allow the IETF
to resolve the subject of interoperability between systems.

The IETF is scheduled to release its working group’s findings from industry
proposals it collected in June, sometime in mid-July.

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