Your Money: Who owns your email account?
PITTSBURGH - One morning in April, my Yahoo email account was disabled for no apparent reason.
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 (https://info.yahoo.com/legal/us/yahoo/utos/utos-173.html).
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 reason."
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 objectionable."
"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 they want."
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 grocery lists.
Losing this account has taken the diary of my life with her and torched it.
Lewis Braham is a Reuters contributor, the opinions expressed are his own