(The author is a Reuters contributor. The opinions expressed
are his own.)
By Lewis Braham
Pittsburgh, June 3 One morning in April, my
Yahoo email account was disabled for no apparent
As a freelancer, my email account is my professional
lifeline. But it wasn't just the security threat or potential
for lost business that upset me. It was my personal history:
jokes my brother sent me weeks before he died, emails from
friends I hadn't seen in years, love letters from my wife.
In the seven weeks since my account was shut, I've spent
about 12 hours on hold with Yahoo customer service and
corresponded with the company at least 15 times.
Meanwhile, fearing a security breach, I changed the
passwords to all of my online accounts, ordered new credit cards
and had the credit reporting agency Equifax put my
status on "fraud alert." I emailed contacts not to use or trust
my old email address which may have been hacked.
And I still don't have my email account back.
Since then, I've learned it wasn't a security threat that
was the problem. It was a question of ownership. And, if your
email account is terminated, don't expect to revive it.
After two weeks of calling and emailing Yahoo's customer
service, I received a message on my Gmail account from Yahoo
Customer Care informing me that my account had been disabled for
violating Yahoo's Terms of Service (here).
The email did not specify what terms I had violated, merely
that "Yahoo, in its sole discretion, may terminate your
password, account (or any part thereof) or use of the Service,
and remove and discard any content within the Service, for any
I tried to figure out how I might have breached Yahoo's
terms of service. The best I could come up with was that I had
'flamed' people (slang for insulting people online or expressing
angry opinions) in message boards under Yahoo articles, after
they'd flamed me.
But the truth was I didn't know. Yahoo's terms are flexible
in defining violations, with its terms of service including
agreement by the user not to send, share or post content that's
"unlawful, harmful, threatening, abusive, harassing, tortious,
defamatory, vulgar, obscene, libelous, invasive of another's
privacy, hateful, or racially, ethnically, or otherwise
"I think Yahoo left out the part where they say, 'Or if we
just don't like it,'" jokes Eric Goldman, law professor at Santa
Clara University, who has written on email ownership rights.
"Unfortunately, federal law provides email service providers
unfettered discretion to terminate accounts for whatever reason
An email account over the Internet is a cloud-based service,
Goldman notes. "A cloud service can lock off your assets," he
adds. "They may still be your assets from a matter of legal
ownership, but if you have no access to them, who cares?"
Microsoft and Google use language similar
to Yahoo's for their terms of service, although Google says
users own their data and access to it is important.
"If we discontinue a Service, where reasonably possible, we
will give you reasonable advance notice and a chance to get
information out of that Service," Google says.
Just how many accounts are terminated annually is unknown -
service providers don't release that data.
REACTIVATING THE ACCOUNT
Since Yahoo would not reactivate my account, I asked the
company for permission to download my old emails and contacts. A
customer service rep promised a response, which never came.
According to Yahoo spokesperson Erin Fors, Yahoo users must
agree to comply with the company's terms of service when they
create their Yahoo account.
"We have clear rules in our Terms, and in related guidelines
documents, that set out what is and is not acceptable behavior
on Yahoo services," Fors said via email.
Weeks after this nightmare descended on my inbox, I found a
warning the company sent to an AOL account that I glance at
infrequently. Why didn't Yahoo just send the warning to my Yahoo
address? I will never know.
What's your alternative to free service providers like
Yahoo, Google and Microsoft? Several paid email service
providers say that they allow customers to access old emails
after disabling a user's account.
"We never shut down access to e-mail data," says George
Breahna, chief executive officer of PolarisMail. "If we do
decide to terminate the account, the customer will obviously be
allowed to get back all their data."
PolarisMail charges $1 a month for a basic account with 25
GB of storage and $2 a month for extra features. GoDaddy charges
$3.99 a month for 5 GB of storage. Rackspace charges $2 a month
for 25 GB of storage.
In the end, it's the correspondence with my wife I will miss
the most. All the little notes we had exchanged through the
course of our entire relationship; the corny but endearing
declarations, the extravagant anniversary plans, the mundane
Losing this account has taken the diary of my life with her
and torched it.
(Editing by Lauren Young and Bernadette Baum)