Update: Google disables Gmail accounts by mistake

Company says it wrongly identified some users of the e-mail service as spammers

Google Inc. this week mistakenly disabled the Gmail accounts of what it later described as a small number of users due to an apparently overzealous attempt by the company to combat spammers.

A Google staffer writing under the name "Gmail Guide" posted a message on the company's Gmail Help Discussion forum yesterday saying that the problem had been fixed. But today, some Gmail users were still complaining about being locked out of their accounts. The thread devoted to the disabled accounts contained a total of more than 160 postings as of 1:30 p.m. EST.

The problem came to light Wednesday night, when users of the e-mail service began reporting on the Gmail Help forum that they couldn't access their accounts.

The Google staffer, who monitors the forum and posts messages on behalf of the company, acknowledged the existence of a problem Thursday afternoon. "I understand that some of you have had a frustrating experience with your accounts being inappropriately disabled," Gmail Guide wrote. "Our team is aware of the problem, and our engineers are continuing to investigate."

Several hours later, Gmail Guide declared that things were back to normal and wrote, "Our efforts to prevent breaches of our Terms of Use [policy] caused a number of users to be incorrectly identified" -- meaning as spammers or other abusive users.

In a subsequent posting last night, the staffer provided more details about the situation, saying that it was the result of an effort by Google to purge such users from the Gmail service. Users whose accounts were disabled by mistake should have regained access to them by that point, without losing any of their account data, the staffer wrote.

However, it appears that the e-mail service didn't accept messages sent to disabled accounts while they were offline. Instead, senders received a "bounce-back" notice informing that the e-mails hadn't been delivered to the intended recipients.

Google spokeswoman Courtney Hohne confirmed on Friday that Gmail didn't accept messages sent to the accounts while they were disabled. And the e-mail service won't automatically attempt to redeliver the incoming messages that were rejected, Hohne said via e-mail.

"Our goal has always been to keep Gmail free of people who abuse the service and to keep Gmail inboxes free of spam," she wrote. "We've been targeting a large network of spammers to keep them out of the Gmail system and accidentally disabled access to some other accounts."

Hohne said the mistakenly disabled accounts affected "a small fraction" of people, well below 1% of the tens of millions of Gmail users.

In addition to the problem of disabled accounts, a steady stream of Gmail users have been complaining over the past month that when they upgrade to a new version, popularly known as Gmail 2.0, the service becomes extremely slow, often failing to load pages and even crashing their browsers. One of several threads devoted to that issue in the Gmail Help forum continues to grow, with nearly 300 messages at this point.

Gmail isn't just a free Web mail service for individuals; it is also part of the company's Google Apps suite of hosted collaboration and communication applications, which is used by more than 100,000 organizations, mostly small businesses, as well as by hundreds of universities.

Google offers a service-level agreement of 99.9% uptime to individual users and organizations that sign up for the Premier edition of Google Apps, which costs $50 per user annually.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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