Bowing to regulators from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which is investigating America Online's purchase of Time Warner, AOL announced this week that it would open its Instant Messaging (IM) service to other IM clients. AOL IM won headlines last year when it closed the service to clients from Yahoo, Microsoft, and other companies, and the company has been under fire ever since. Competitors have charged AOL, which owns the largest Internet access service on the planet, with anti-competitive behavior, which drew the interest of federal regulators looking at the AOL/Time Warner deal. The FTC has notified AOL that it would need to answer questions about AOL IM and the agency has already contacted IM competitors for their comments. Rather than face sharp questions about AOL IM and possibly imperil the Time Warner acquisition, the online giant is cutting its losses and opening IM up to competitors.
AOL explained its reluctance to open up its IM users--currently numbering over 50 million--to the rest of the Internet. According to the company, it was only trying to protect the privacy and security of its online service members, all of whom automatically get access to AOL IM. But AOL is now renewing talks with an Internet standards body so that instant messaging can become an industry standard. "Long term, we're supportive of industry efforts to arrive at a standard," an AOL spokesperson says. "But this whole arena, if not carefully opened up, could become a haven for hackers and spammers." AOL users, which are seen largely as "newbies" and technology neophytes, have suffered from various hacker attacks in the past