Last week, a survey appeared on PhotoPoint.com's Web site asking former members whether they would be willing to pay $24.95 to get their pictures back, among other things.
"I would like to assure people that their photos have not been lost and are safe," the message said. "We are looking at various options for finding PhotoPoint members a new home."
The move highlights the uncharted paths of online business, where the legal status of data files--and the liability of companies to fail to preserve them--remains murky.
The notice comes after PhotoPoint parent Pantellic Softwareoperations two months ago, leaving some 1.25 million PhotoPoint members in the dark about whether their photos would be returned to them.
Jessica Wilke, research analyst at La Jolla, Calif.-based ARS, welcomed the move as a rare communication from the service, and possibly the best solution for former customers caught in a bad situation.
"It's good that they're actually communicating a little bit with their customers, albeit it's fairly questionable," she said. "I think people are actually going to pay for their pictures. Obviously, they're not going to be happy about it, but they will do whatever it takes to get back those images."
Dale Gass, president of Pantellic, could not immediately be reached for comment.
The survey asks members if they would be interested in getting a CD-ROM of their photos for $24.95 plus shipping if PhotoPoint is not able to return online. Another question asks if members would be willing to pay $5.95 per month for the service if PhotoPoint is able to come back online. And a third option asks members if they would be interested if eBay or another third-party Web site hosted their photos.
But the survey drew harsh criticism from some former customers who said they were infuriated by the prospect of being forced to pay Pantellic to get their photos back.
"I think the survey stinks," said former PhotoPoint.com member Norma Swearingen of North Little Rock, Ark. "In December, everything disappeared--no warning, no e-mail. And in that survey, they're wanting more money to get them out of debt."
Swearingen said it was unfair to pay extra fees to have her photos returned to her when she already paid for a year's worth of service in August. She said she only used the service for three months, editing and storing old black-and-white photos of her family.
Swearingen said that instead of forcing former members to pay a fee, Pantellic should open up the server on a given day and inform members when they could download the pictures. She added that Pantellic, however, has not made any efforts to communicate with customers, especially regarding the survey which she found out about through a newsgroup.
"They knew ahead of time that they were in a bind," Swearingen said. "If they were any kind of a customer-oriented people, they would have let us have the opportunity to move our pictures before they shut down."