AOL Locks Out IM Users

Updated: The leading IM service accidentally blocks an unknown number of users while purging outdated accounts. A fix could take until Monday.

America Online Inc. has confirmed that it mistakenly deactivated a number of AOL Instant Messenger accounts this week as part of its regular cycle of opening unused screen names to new users.

AOL, whose instant messaging service is among the most widely used worldwide, had begun releasing screen names that had gone unused when it snarled the accounts of some active users in the process, an AOL spokeswoman confirmed to The Dulles, Va., company is working to restore the mistakenly turned-off accounts by Monday.

"This week, we released a group of AIM screen names which was overwhelmingly comprised of just such abandoned screen names," AOL spokeswoman Krista Thomas said in a statement.

"Unfortunately, however, a small number of active screen names was also inadvertently included."

/zimages/2/28571.gifTo read an update on the status of the blocked AIM accounts, click here.

AOL typically only reopens screen names from accounts that have been inactive for about 12 months or more. AOL would not say how many active users were affected.

The mistake surprised AIM users, many of whom took to Weblogs to try to figure out if they were alone in being cut off from IM.

Joi Ito, a well-know venture capitalist with Tokyo-based Neoteny Co. Ltd., wrote in his blog Thursday about receiving a message that his AIM account had been suspended when he tried to launch the service.

"Does anyone know what this error means and how I resolve it?" he asked his blog readers.

At least two readers responded that they, too, could not log into their AIM accounts.

Among them was Liz Lawley, an assistant professor in the IT department at the Rochester Institute of Technology. When she tried to start one of her AIM accounts Monday, she received an error message stating that her sign-on was blocked.

Lawley said she was unable to find any information about why the account was blocked other than standard information such as AIMs terms of service and age requirements.

"I understand that mistakes can be made, but it would be nice if they could tell us about it," Lawley said.

/zimages/2/28571.gifWhat about IM use at work? Click here to learn about its impact.

Learning that a fix could take until Monday, Lawley said she was less concerned about how long her account will be unavailable and more worried about whether she and other affected users will regain access to data such as their buddy lists.

Luckily for Lawley, the blocked account was not her main AIM account but one she uses to chat with students during office hours.

"This has resulted in me being very concerned about being dependent on a single source for IM," she said, "and may well result in my starting to use a variety of IM providers in an attempt to protect myself from future outages."

For its part, AOL offered an apology for the mistake.

"We sincerely regret the interruption of service which some users may have experienced as a result, and we apologize for the inconvenience this interruption may have caused," Thomas said.

Editors Note: This story was updated to include information and comments from AIM user Liz Lawley.

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