To Merge, AOL May Have to Play Nice Over IM

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Until now, America Online has escaped the kind of scrutiny that has left its nemesis, Microsoft, writhing in the clutches of the courts. That could be about to change, as the Internet giant finds itself under the microscopes of the ounce-of-prevention trustbusters over its purchase of Time Warner. And the feds are giving Steve Case some hints as to how a tech behemoth should act. Lesson 1, according to Wednesday's Wall Street Journal: Instant Messaging, the real-time, buddy-listed way to chat online that's more popular with teenagers than 'N Sync and is widely expected to be next frontier of all things e-. AOL owns 90 percent of the 150-million-strong IM market and, more important, has continually thwarted attempts by Microsoft and other small IM players to tap into its system and reach its users. TIME Silicon Valley correspondent Chris Taylor says that's just the kind of piggish, anti-spirit-of-the-Net behavior that the feds would hate to see from an AOL-Time Warner combination.

"IM specifically is not a strong antitrust case, because AOL doesn't own any exclusive means of transmitting the messages, or leverage its service against anything else. It's just overwhelmingly popular," he says. "But if the feds are going to allow AOL to own Time Warner's cable lines, they want assurances that AOL won't turn them into an exclusive carrier of AOL content. And the company's use of its IM domination isn't very reassuring." AOL isn't a monopolist now, and AOL-Time Warner would be no more of a cable monopoly than Time Warner (corporate overlord of this site) has been. It's more a question of corporate character — what kind of behemoth would AOL-Time Warner be? How would it wield its immense clout? And to the wary eyes of Washington, AOL's fiercely proprietary instincts when it comes to IM is a bad omen. If Bill Gates and Steve Case were on speaking terms, Gates might have this to pass on: If you want to be king, at least pretend to be benevolent.