May 9, 2000 5:00 PM PDT

Yahoo, Excite@Home may join instant messaging complaint

CMGI is rallying Internet companies to demand further government scrutiny of America Online's pending merger with Time Warner, citing AOL's refusal to open its instant messaging services to rivals.

iCast and Tribal Voice--both privately held, CMGI majority-owned firms--have requested support from Web giant Yahoo and cable Internet service provider Excite@Home, among others. iCast and Tribal Voice could present a letter to regulators by the end of the week, according to sources familiar with the plans, provided enough companies in the industry sign on.

"We're outreaching and building a coalition of companies that would want this space to be open," a CMGI spokeswoman said.

A source close to Excite@Home said the company plans to sign the letter. The company declined to comment on the issue. However, a Yahoo spokesman confirmed the letter has been received and that the company is "evaluating it now."

Should they decide to take action, iCast, Tribal Voice and their potential allies will likely forward the letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) by May 11, the agency's deadline for public comment on the AOL-Time Warner merger.

An AOL spokeswoman declined to comment on the action.

The effort comes just weeks after iCast and Tribal Voice filed their first complaint with the FCC over AOL's instant messaging policies. The complaint asked the FCC to "encourage" the opening of the AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) product to outside companies.

CMGI would not comment on the letter to the companies, but it also would not rule out the possibility of another filing with the FCC. The company did confirm that the April complaint garnered considerable attention among other companies concerned about the instant messaging issue.

"In response to the filing that we did, we have been approached by a number of people that are interested in the issue," said Blair Levin, a legal consultant to Tribal Voice and iCast.

The battle over instant messaging has raged for nearly a year. Rivals have complained about AOL's practice of blocking AIM's 91 million registered users in its "Buddy List" network from communicating with outside instant messaging products.

You've got Time Warner Given the size of AIM's network, competitors have tried to force AOL's hand in opening its list of customers to competing technologies. But companies that have tried prying open AIM's network on their own, including Microsoft, iCast and Tribal Voice, say they have met with AOL blockades.

Companies critical of AOL's instant messaging policies allege that the online giant has stepped back from its promise to develop a standard that allows all instant messaging products to communicate with one another. Further, they allege that instant messaging has the potential to become as influential as the telephone and that all people should be able to communicate regardless of whose technology they use.

Companies such as iCast and Tribal Voice have been spearheading efforts to bring the debate to regulators' attention. In March, the companies sent a letter addressed to Sen. Conrad Burns, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, and Sen. Ernest F. Hollings of the Senate Commerce Committee, addressing AOL's alleged refusal to pursue interoperability of its AIM network.

Puppet masters: Who controls the Net "Let us emphasize that we are not calling for regulation, and as a group, we take no position on the AOL-Time Warner merger," the letter read. "Our sole concern is with ensuring that all Internet users can enjoy the immense benefits of fully interoperable instant messaging capabilities and avoid the danger of a Balkanized system, or worse, a system where interoperable instant messaging is effectively stifled."

Executives from search service AltaVista, CMGI, Excite@Home and Prodigy also signed the letter.

Most of the companies that signed on in March have also been sent the most recent letter, according to sources familiar with the coalition's efforts.

 

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