What do you do when you try to open your Windows Live Hotmail account – as you have every day for several years – and find it's been deleted, along with all emails and contacts?
I recently tried to log in to my Hotmail account to check my incoming mail. My account was not just for casual communications with friends, but for important stuff relating to work. At the time I also had a partly-finished article I was working on which I had stored as an attachment with an email. And I was also under a deadline to send some important information to a contact.
But Hotmail would not recognise me. I checked the spelling of the address and retyped the password several times. I checked the computer connections. I tried every trick to get in and even resorted to asking for help from other people. But I was locked out.
Then I got in touch with Hotmail support, having to establish a new email address and password to do so. The next day I received a reply from Microsoft Customer Support that started with: “Thank you for writing to Windows Live Hotmail Customer Support. This is (name) and I gather that your account has been closed. I understand your concern about this matter and the need for this issue to be addressed immediately...”
Naturally I tried to figure out what “objectionable material” I had ever placed in an email. I had been using my Hotmail account almost exclusively for business purposes, with a few personal exchanges, and how and when could I ever have placed any objectionable material in an email? And what is “objectionable material” anyway?
One of Microsoft’s replies indicates a few possibilities: “unwanted mail or “spam”, “abusive or harassing email, account fraud.”
I sent another email asking how Microsoft could apply sanctions against a user without telling him what he had done wrong? The reply: “To protect the privacy of those who forward complaints to our customer service regarding one of our members, we do not discuss the reason for the closure.”
A inquiry into the status of the account met with: “I regret to inform you that I cannot provide you any information regarding the status of your account. All Windows Live Hotmail member information is confidential, and we can release it only to law enforcement officials when served with a subpoena or criminal search warrant. This is in compliance with the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA).”
I asked Hotmail whether they could at least grant me temporary access to my previous email so that I could save the information contained and notify the people I deal with of my new email address. The reply: “We regret to inform you that once accounts are closed, we have no means to grant access to anyone. No new email is received at this account and no email is sent from this account. All email sent to this address will bounce back to the sender as undeliverable”.
There are a few interesting questions regarding the whole experience. The Hotmail policy seems a blatant violation of basic principles of fairness and justice. How can you accuse anybody of an infraction, and slap sanctions on him and refuse to tell him what he has done wrong? He has no chance of defending himself, or verifying the truth of the accusation.
How about their excuse about protecting the privacy of the accuser? That’s a cute one. Can you imagine charging a person with an offence, convicting him and punishing him, while refusing to tell him what he has been charged with “to protect the privacy of the person who charged him”?
In the real world, if someone places obscene material in an email, the recipient of the email can charge the sender according to the local obscenity laws through the proper authorities. What right does Microsoft have to assume all those official roles, without the accountability and responsibility of those authorities?
But the objectionable material excuse is not the only one Hotmail uses to close your email account. Many Hotmail or Live Mail users don’t realise that if you don’t use your account for 30 days, Hotmail will delete its contents. Incredible as it may seem, Hotmail’s account policies spell this out: “Your account becomes inactive if you do not sign in for 30 days, or within the first 10 days after signing up for an account. After an account becomes inactive, all messages, folders, and contacts are deleted, but the account name is still reserved. After an account becomes inactive, all messages, folders, and contacts are deleted, but the account name is still reserved.” If you don’t use the account at all for 90 days, the whole thing is deleted.
The Internet is awash with Hotmail users who have been caught out by this. One user, Tom Raftery, writes on his blog
"I Logged into my Windows Live email account yesterday only to find
all my email deleted. Not even a single solitary spam message left. I
should be livid. Should be tearing what little hair I have left out of
"Instead I am simply moderately furious! Why? Well this is not the first time Microsoft decided to delete all the email
from my (then Hotmail) account. So I learned after losing valuable
email the first time, not to trust any important email to Microsoft.
"What makes it more annoying is that if Microsoft allowed POP access
to Live Mail accounts, the way Gmail does, you would be logged in every
time you fire up your email client app and you would have a local
backup of your mail. But Microsoft won’t do that. Why? Because that
might be useful?"
According to Microsoft, POP is available on the Hotmail Plus service (US$19.95 a year), and there are plans to introduce it for free users in the next 12 months sometime, but Microsoft won’t commit itself to a time frame.
Microsoft also makes it incredibly difficult for users to move to
another webmail provider, as it obstinately refuses to provide a mail
forwarding option, to allow people to make a smooth transition. Meanwhile, Google offers Gmail accounts with 6GB+ storage (constantly
increasing), free POP and IMAP access, mail forwarding, and a
fast-responding, lightweight interface. No wonder Microsoft is making
it as hard as possible for users to change away from Hotmail.
Raftery makes the telling point: “Microsoft has a huge image problem. They are perceived as deeply uncool. Vista hasn’t helped this at all. But Windows Live is the public face of Microsoft. When Windows Live does things like ensures people can’t download their email, and then deletes it without warning, it is no wonder that Microsoft is considered yesterday’s company."