Which? leads decrepit email service behind barn, single shot rings out over valley

Users fuming... if only they had a consumer champion to turn to

Consumer group Which? is to terminate its 20-plus-year-old email service, giving long-standing users two months to switch accounts.

Which.net was set up in the mid-90s as a benefit to members between 1997 and 2004, after which it was closed to new signups but remained active.

The group has now decided to set a cut-off date as 24 May 2018 – the day before the General Data Protection Regulation comes into effect.

The move has angered long-time users, some of whom have used the service for more than 20 years, accusing the consumer champion of hypocrisy, given that its raison d'être is to fight for shoppers to be treated fairly.

"This is simply abandoning long-standing members with no thought of the consequences for them," said veteran user Ian McKenzie.

He said that over time, users were reliant on the service as a sole source of communication with family, or for business use, and he claimed to have not been given enough time to migrate to an alternative.

But Which? told customers that it should only offer services it "would recommend if they weren't our own" and that which.net was no longer fit for purpose.

"We have taken the really tough decision to close this service. It no longer provides the high-quality service that people need and there are more providers and better services on the market," a spokesperson told The Register.

This view was fleshed out by Patrick Steen, head of Which? Conversation – the firm's discussion forum – in a thread on the site.

"It was a really hard decision to make, and it was made at the highest level after much discussion, but the service just isn't up to scratch compared to what's on the market," Steen wrote.

"Whether it's spam filtering or other key features – other email providers are just further ahead."

Steen added that Which? "just can't compete" with rival email providers and was "trying to focus on new services, products or tools where consumers are much less well served in the marketplace, where there really aren't good alternatives".

However, the council of trustees at Which? is also understood to have taken into consideration declining user numbers, increasing costs and GDPR.

Information presented to the council earlier this year, seen by The Register, revealed that user numbers have dropped. At its peak, there were 14,000 active email addresses, but due to cancellation and account closure it has fallen to 5,689 live accounts; and not quite 4,000 logged in during January 2018.

In addition, the email service is costly to run, as technical problems have led to it being placed on higher-end servers, pushing up hosting costs to between £36,000 and £40,000 a year. The additional cost of offering an IT helpdesk for users is estimated at up to £15,000 a year.

When asked about these figures, Which? said it couldn't comment on confidential documents, but did separately say that there were about 5,700 active users of the email service.

Our source also said that there were concerns that the service wouldn't be GDPR compliant, due primarily to "deletion of accounts and data stored", and that rectifying this would be an additional outlay.

A series of outages during 2016 indicated it was no longer fit for purpose, our source added.

Nonetheless, one user named Kerry said on the forum the consumer group should have "understood the anxiety it would cause" users and that the change had been too fast and without full consultation.

Which? staff have emphasised that they understand this impact, and offered help for users managing the move off the service.

"In order to help all users, we are providing free tech support online and by phone. This will help users migrate appropriately to a new provider and help them save all their files and contacts before the service closes on 24th May," a spokesperson said. ®

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