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Feds home in on AOL instant messaging

The Unprovable chases the Unreadable. IRC, anyone?

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The Feds have stepped in to investigate AOL's dominance of the instant messaging business. The company operates the AIM and ICQ networks and has so far successfully fought off challenges from both Microsoft and open source messaging protocols.

But how much longer this good cop/bad cop tactic can hold out now looks questionable.

The Wall Street Journal reports that FTC has requested information, prompted by the Time Warner merger rolling towards completion. Yup, you're hearing right - that tie-up was announced six months ago, and the legal beagles are only just getting round to considering the effects for consumers and business rivals.

AOL has 150 million users for its instant messaging software, all of whom must be registered with the company. The company has responded with a threefold approach – by physically blocking predatory rivals such as Microsoft and Yahoo! (arguing that it compromises the users' passwords); by doing deals with smaller rivals such as Novell and Earthlink, and by making half-hearted gestures towards punting IM, or ICQ, or whatever you want as some kind of industry standard, OK, so will you all now go away please?

On the upside, it has to be said, AOL has done little to discourage cloners: ICQ clients exist for almost every platform – with varying degrees of functionality – and many of these include the ability to register with the network. So presumably, AOL reckons that the killer feature in its 'real' ICQ is the that audio feedback of the sound of typewriter keys as you clatter out a message.

But that's by the by...

We read this as more of a warning shot that Time Warner and AOL shouldn’t take their merger for granted. It certainly makes for a tricky potential prosecution for the FTC.

Since AOL isn't preventing anyone else from doing business, the Feds would have to argue that its messaging communities generate the same kind of network effect that a long-standing, well established OS platform has. In other words, that you can start your own IRC+ messaging service, but it won’t be worth it, as the pervs/Bjork fans/trainspotters [delete where applicable] are already too deeply hooked into AOL communities that they won’t bail out.

Um, we’d like to see them try that one, but we’re not holding our breath. ®

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