AOL: IM Glitch Blocks as Many as 10,000

Days after it mistakenly blocked users of its instant messaging service, AOL posts its first notice to members and promises to restore buddy lists as part of a forthcoming fix.

An America Online Inc. error that began locking out users of its instant-messaging service earlier this week affected no more than 10,000 accounts, the company said Friday.

The company continued to scramble to restore the AOL Instant Messenger accounts by Monday, and an AOL spokeswoman told that the fix would include reinstating access to IM data such as buddy lists for blocked users.

"Were sincerely working as hard as we can and as quickly as we can to remedy the situation," AOL spokeswoman Krista Thomas said.

Also on Friday, the Dulles, Va., company posted its first public notice about the snafu on its AIM Web site under the "Report a Problem" link.

In the notice, the company informs users who are receiving a suspended account message when signing in that it is working to restore the accounts "over the next several days."

The snafu occurred when AOL included active AIM users among a group of inactive screen names it was purging. AOL periodically deactivates accounts that have gone unused for about 12 months in order to make the screen names available to new users.

Users hit by the glitch have complained about the lack of information from AOL about the error and have worried that their lists of IM contacts, which can number in the hundreds, could be lost forever.

AOL downplayed the extent of the blockage, noting that it has a total of 50 million U.S. AIM members from both its free IM service and AOL subscriptions.

Asked if AOL specifically contacted the blocked users, Thomas said AOL has few e-mail addresses for AIM members because providing that contact information is voluntary. Users can report a suspension through the "Report a Problem" link, she said.

AIM users previously told that the suspension notice that appeared when they attempted to sign on linked to an information page explaining that they had either violated AIMs terms of service or were too young to use the service.

"If you dont think you should have been suspended, based on our public terms of service, then you were suspended as a part of the error," Thomas said.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick here to read why AOL followed Yahoo in scrapping its enterprise IM service.

Blocked AIM users, though, were increasingly taking to Weblogs and online message boards to vent and seek advice about their accounts. Many reported having more than one screen name blocked, while others shared e-mail responses they had received after contacting AOL

"I am glad to hear that it wasnt just me," wrote one typical poster on Joi Itos blog. Ito, a venture capitalist at Tokyo-based Neotony Co. Ltd., was one of the first people to post about the blockage.

The outage demonstrates some of the potential downsides of relying on free IM services, said David Ferris, president of messaging market-research company Ferris Research Inc., in San Francisco.

While the major services, including AIM, Yahoo Instant Messenger and MSN Messenger, have had reasonable track records of availability, users should not expect any quality-of-service guarantees from them, Ferris said.

In particular, workplaces continue to rely heavily on the free IM services, and the resistance of businesses to pay for IM distorts expectations in the market, he said.

"One of the things that ought to happen is that companies need to be prepared to pay for more reliable service, but theyre generally not prepared to do so," Ferris said.

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