Facebook Banishment and Due Process

facebook3.jpgRecently, I was talking with David Lat, author of the blog Above the Law, and he was complaining about being banished from Facebook. David was an active user of Facebook, and he suddenly and inexplicably found himself banned from the site. Facebook didn’t supply him with any reason.

I found the issue quite intriguing, and David said I could blog about it. In particular, what makes this issue of interest to me is how it applies more generally to Web 2.0 applications. With Web 2.0, people invest a lot of time creating profiles, uploading information, and so on. And they start to depend upon these applications in their lives.

lat-david-2.jpgDavid also said he has a lot of important information on his Facebook profile. He uses it as a way to communicate with people, and he uses it to help him gather information for use in his blogging. So being kicked off Facebook is a big deal to David. It can impact his job. It can also impact his friendships and professional relationships. For example, David told me he received emails from several friends who wondered where he had gone. They thought David might be ignoring them or might no longer be their “friend” on Facebook.

As more of our lives become dependent on Web 2.0 technologies, should we have some sort of rights or consumer protection? Is Facebook the digital equivalent to the company town?

David checked Facebook’s website, which has a FAQ about disabled accounts. Facebook states:

Your account was disabled because you violated Facebook’s Terms of Use, to which you agreed when you first registered for an account on the site. Accounts can either be disabled for repeat offenses or for one, particularly egregious violation.

Facebook does not allow users to register with fake names, to impersonate any person or entity, or to falsely state or otherwise misrepresent themselves or their affiliations.

We do not allow users to send unsolicited or harassing messages to people they don’t know, and we remove posts that advertise a product, service, website, or opportunity.

Our Code of Conduct outlines the types of content we do not allow on the site. This includes any obscene, pornographic, or sexually explicit photos, as well as any photos that depict graphic violence. We also remove content, photo or written, that threatens, intimidates, harasses, or brings unwanted attention or embarrassment to an individual or group of people.

David insisted that he didn’t do any of the things above. Can he see the allegedly offending content that got him banned? Facebook’s answer in the FAQ comes from the pen of Franz Kafka:

Unfortunately, for technical and security reasons, Facebook cannot provide you with a description or copy of the removed content.

One blogger writes :

Facebook is shutting down accounts of users who are exhibiting any behavior it finds remotely suspicious. As paradoxical as it sounds, “suspicious” often means just using the site too much! Sometimes they warn people and give them the chance to change their behavior, and sometimes the account termination is sudden and permanent. Most of the time the disabled accounts will be turned back on, whether automatically after a cool-down period, or after prostrating yourself to the FB authorities. But sometimes they’ll lock it up and throw away the key.

Facebook remains intentionally vague about what “bad behavior” looks like, and so it’s no wonder that people get confused, angry or despondent when they get the ACCOUNT DISABLED message.

Apparently, you can email Facebook to “appeal” being kicked off, but there are no guarantees that you’ll be given any sort of reason, or hearing, or fair adjudication process. For some banned users, Facebook will inform them of their crime. David said he emailed Facebook and that he only received an email confirming receipt of his query. Since then, he hasn’t heard anything more from Facebook.

But Facebook doesn’t have any obligation to tell David anything. Facebook’s Terms of Use provide:

The Company may terminate your membership, delete your profile and any content or information that you have posted on the Site or through any Platform Application and/or prohibit you from using or accessing the Service or the Site or any Platform Application (or any portion, aspect or feature of the Service or the Site or any Platform Application) for any reason, or no reason, at any time in its sole discretion, with or without notice, including if it believes that you are under 13, or under 18 and not in high school or college.

In other words, you exist on Facebook at the whim of Facebook. The Facebook dieties can zap your existence for reasons even more frivolous than those of the Greek gods. Facebook can banish you because you’re wearing a blue T-shirt in your photo, or because it selected you at random, or because you named your blog Above the Law rather than Below the Law.

On the one hand, this rule seems uncontroversial. After all, it is Facebook’s website. They own their site, and they have the right to say who gets to use it and who doesn’t.

But on the other hand, people put a lot of labor and work into their profiles on the site. It takes time and effort to build a network of friends, to upload data, to write and create one’s profile. Locking people out of this seizes all their work from them. It’s like your employer locking you out of your office and not letting you take your things. Perhaps at the very least banished people should be able to reclaim the content of their profiles. But what about all their “friends” on the network? People spend a lot of time building connections, and they can’t readily transplant their entire network of friends elsewhere.

Suppose Facebook didn’t have any kind of system for appeal when a person got banished. Should the law force it to have some kind of appeal system? One might argue that perhaps the market will work it out — if people want an appeal system, then they’ll choose the social network website or Web 2.0 application that has one. But in many contexts (though not all contexts) people rarely think about the procedures companies have for when things go wrong. This is often not a consideration in making a choice, so it might not generate enough competition in this regard.

As more people use Web 2.0 applications, they are increasingly encouraged to invest an incredible amount of time and effort in them. Facebook wants and encourages people to put up information, to build one’s network, and so on. Given people’s investment in these applications, should they be granted any kind of rights or protections in using them?

UPDATE: David Lat finally heard back from Facebook. He was banished because he “posted parts of a user’s profile to another website, which is a violation of Facebook’s Terms of Use.” Facebook reactivated David’s account, so the story has a happy ending. All’s well with the world.

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18 Responses

  1. Wow, that is a scoop. Lat didn’t even blog about it.

    re: But in many contexts (though not all contexts) people rarely think about the procedures companies have for when things go wrong.

    Touché. That’s why I do compliance software. :-]

    re: Should the law force it to have some kind of appeal system?

    Ha. While reviewing the governance mechanisms of Wikileaks, I re-read John Perry Barlow’s anti-CDA manifesto from 1996. This passage struck me:

    We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge. Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule. We hope we will be able to build our particular solutions on that basis.

    So, in theory, these online communities should be well on their way to developing governance systems.

    Uberblogger Robert Scoble was booted from Facebook two months back, for trying to pull all of his contacts’ email addresses into Outlook (cf. DataPortability.org). He got reinstated the same day. Here was the response he got from Customer Service:

    Our standard process for handling cases when an account is disabled for security violations is to allow a user to appeal and remedy the situation. This is the process we have followed here. Since you contacted us and have agreed not to run the script again, we have reactivated your account.

  2. thomas says:


    The work of Nic Suzor (from Australia) may interesting here. He has been looking at similar issues in gaming and other virtual worlds.

    Governance in Virtual Environments, PhD Confirmation, QUT, 07 March 2007: http://nic.suzor.com/materials/20070307-NS-VirtualEnvironments.ppt

  3. KipEsquire says:

    “As more of our lives become dependent on Web 2.0 technologies, should we have some sort of rights or consumer protection? Is Facebook the digital equivalent to the company town?”

    No and no.

    What part of “private property” and “free to the user” are unclear?

    I also find it fascinating that this question is being asked in the wake of far more people complaining about exactly the opposite phenomenon: Facebook refusing to delete profiles.

    Meanwhile, one person’s “dependence” (real or purported) being wielded as a sword upon another person’s private property gave us, inter alia, Kelo v. New London. No thanks.

    Sometimes private property is just private property. Sometimes a user agreement is just a user agreement.

    It’s like your employer locking you out of your office and not letting you take your things.”

    No, it’s like a hotel guest who makes too much noise, is kicked out and then claims “tortious interference with business” because he missed a sales meeting the next day as a result. Utter nonsense.

    Or, if you prefer, it’s like your employer firing you and then not letting you copy the draft blogposts you stored on its network.

  4. The part of this story I find amazing is that the market does absolutely nothing to remedy the problem. In the real world, if a company were a repository of information or goods (say a bank, a document repository, or a storage center) and it had a policy that everything you entrusted to it could be made inaccessible or destroyed at the whim of the company and without explanation, no one would use it even if it were free. This is especially true if the business were critical for one’s income stream.

    Yet, people seem to live with that possibility in virtual worlds (whether it be Facebook or Second Life) without blinking.

    One could assign blame to the lack of knowledge, understanding, and assent to terms of service, but I don’t think that can be it. If these issues were important to the market, then new sites would pop up advertising their better terms.

    Instead, I attribute the problem to simple (lack of) strength in numbers. The number of people who truly rely on sites such as this (and would likely pay for more certainty) are far, far outnumbered by those who do not, and are happy to have the risky proposition available for free. Of course, those who need the sites for income have to go where the masses are, and they are thus subject to the whim of those sites.

    Based on that, I would think the market opportunity for these sites is to offer two tier systems (which many do) – free users have no rights, and paying users have particular rights. The only question is whether the revenue stream from users who would pay overcomes the “cost” to the company of administering such a plan and losing some control. The answer for Facebook appears to be “no” at the moment.

  5. Katie says:

    The blogging site LiveJournal experienced a similar scandal recently when it started removing the accounts of people who were posting certain types of fanfiction with sexually explicit content. There was pretty far reaching outrage from the user base and numerous threats to leave by groups of fans (who are really the main users of the site, it seems). LiveJournal seemed to relent, but it raised some interesting issues.

  6. Windypundit says:

    It’s not a matter of strength in numbers or rights for Facebook users. I think the problem is just that Facebook makes very little money from each user.

    The staff time to review a violation or answer an email probably costs enough to wipe out an entire year’s revenue from that account.

    Perhaps they need a two-tiered system, where some users can pay a nominal fee to receive better customer service. Facebook would be a lot more careful about deletions if they had to pay a refund.

  7. Eric Goldman says:

    With so many Facebook users wanting to exit the site and not having a way to do so, it looks like Facebook did Lat a favor. Eric.

  8. Ted says:

    “The part of this story I find amazing is that the market does absolutely nothing to remedy the problem.”

    Sure it does. I left Facebook in response to how they treated David Lat. If Facebook is arbitrary and capricious in how it treats its customers, and its customers dislike this, another social-networking site that offers a better mix of services and customer service will take its place. Friendster is a cautionary tale: they tried to monetize their users through advertising and cutting costs in server speed, and it was quickly replaced by Facebook. Most grownups appear to prefer LinkedIn, which has tiers of membership.

  9. jon says:

    Great article!

    Facebook’s automated filters and others’ experiences with account deletion, as well as how to respond, are descrbed in How to respond when Facebook censors your political speech on the Wired How-to Wiki; please add your own experiences and additional suggestions there!

    In virtually all the cases I tracked, people were able to get their accounts restored, although it often does take a while to get through to a real person.


    PS: Shameless plug: I’m on the program committee for this year’s Computers, Freedom, and Privacy conference, where we love talking about stuff like this. More here.

  10. Scott Caplan says:

    Can Lat not sue fb for breach, and let the trial determine whether or not he broke their terms? At the very least, it would give them an incentive to create a second review stage. There is an arbitration clause in the terms, but I don’t see that as a dealbreaker for Lat, supposing he doesn’t want to fight its enforceability.

  11. george weiss says:

    scott-probably not. the only real term of use is that facebook gets to decide when to suspend the account and it is not liable at all for doing so…the other terms are really just guidelines for what facebook considers bad

    this sort of thing happens with email too.

    my email pop3 sever suspended me on a Friday before a legal holiday on Monday and i had to wait until they opened on Tuesday before i was let back into my email.

    not only that..people who sent me email got a bounce back message saying the account had been suspended.

    of course..when i got a human being on the phone the email server admitted it was a bot that had automatically suspended me..and reinstated my account…but the messages sent in the meanwhile while it was suspended were unrecoverable.

    but in the meantime..suppose a client or employer had emailed me and not only could i not get into it then..i could never get the email becuase it was unrecoverable after the suspension was lifted

    and of course..terms of use for their service allow them to do this..and indemnify them against any loss whatsoever from the email suspension..even if you didn’t violate their “terms of use’…

    email isn’t exactly internet 2.0..and lots of people use it and rely upon it for way more important things then i do…Legilaters..judges..law enforcement etc..

  12. george weiss says:

    oh i should mention..the bot had a bug..the server didn’t accuse me of anything and just reinstated the account

  13. Some folks have already drafted a “Bill of Rights for Users of the Social Web” to make clear the data users provide about them is not just a company’s private property. Sounds like a pretty radical approach, but it opens some more horizon for an in-depth discussion.

    The more interesting thing to me is: When Robert Scoble crawled his social network on Facebook in order to export it to somewhere else, he did not only not have Facebooks’s ok for this, but he also forgot asking all his FB friends if they were ok with crawling and exporting their data to somewhere they never subscribed to in the forst place. So we have at least three parties involved here: The platform, the user, and the members of his or her network.

  14. All this talk– and to no end. You all jumped the gun. As I pointed out in the first response some 24 hours ago, Facebook *does* have an appeals process. Lat inquired within, and they told him. He was reinstated. (Yes, I see that Dan updated the post.)

    Lat violated the particular term of service regarding posting other people’s data.

    Think about the ramifications of that for a second. The Future of Reputation and other (lesser) commentaries on the Internet have made the assumption that anything posted online is equally viral. Facebook, which has been much-maligned for its privacy policy, has crafted a magnificent Lessigian constraint here.

    Suppose you have a picture getting wasted at a party (whatever). Sure, any job hunter can see it. But it simply can’t get amplified in a newspaper or other website. It’s a remarkably clever strategy– an artificial constraint to help counteract virality (and to enourage people to join).

  15. Will Bower says:


    But this time, it’s not for me, Will Bower.

    It’s for a whole group of Hillary supporters here on FaceBook.

    I’ve just written and sent the following to FaceBook, and am posting it for you to read here now:

    Thank you, Will Bower







    Dear FaceBook.

    I am a member of the FaceBook group “Hillary Clinton for President – One Million STRONG”.

    Our administator (Candy Elizabeth) has -begged- FaceBook (for some time now) to fix a glitch in our group that has left us *powerless* to regulate trolling. (I’ll include her letter below.)

    Just take a moment to look at what has become of our FaceBook “home”:


    I can’t tell you how disheartening this is. And, as you’ll read in the afore mentioned letter, we’ve learned that the largest Obama group has consistently had their “glitch-needs” met, as even the head of that group acknowledges.

    PLEASE, Facebook. HELP us !!

    Will Bower

    Here’s the letter from Candy Elizabeth to Dori:

    Dear Dori,

    I am deeply disappointed that Facebook has made no progess and has not even provided a timeline for action regarding the glitch in the “Hillary Clinton For President – One Million Strong” Facebook Group. You have been aware of this problem since February and have done nothing.

    As you recall, Mitchell Meyle explained to you that the search feature was not working for our group leaving us unable to add moderators, to ban members, or remove bans on members. Your explanation, so far, has been that there is a glitch ‘due to the size of the group.”

    You will also recall that we explained to you that we contacted Ken Stokes, administrator from the “One Million Strong for Barack Obama” Facebook Group. Mr. Stokes has informed us that he is not experiencing this “glitch.” For reference, the Barack Obama group has twenty times as many members as ours.

    In the time since we first informed you of this problem, Facebook programmers have added the Facebook Chat feature, the Online Friends Feature, and a lovely feature that provides Facebook Users with advertisements for pornography websites and dating services. We are dumbfounded that you cannot find the time to solve what seems to us to be a minor problem. We are dumbfounded still that you cannot even provide us with a timeline despite numerous requests.

    The group’s primary purpose is to encourage political activism and the exchange of political ideas. Since Facebook admins have taken no action on the numerous reports of abuses of Facebooks’ terms of use made by unwanted members in our group; we must be able to put more moderators in place in order to maintain the group’s integrity and civility. Spam and offensive messages on our boards and discussion threads run rampant. The Obama group is able to swiftly and efficiently remove them since they have numerous moderators and are able to ban members. We expect equal treatment.

    Since we believe that an unacceptable amount of time has passed since we first brought this issue to your attention, we have now CC’d numerous members of the national press as well as both presidential campaigns.

    Very Unhappily,

    Candy Elizabeth

  16. Aviva Gabriel says:

    Moses Came Down from the Mountain to Reveal the Ten Commandments. Why Can’t Facebook?

    How can we avoid violating Facebook’s Terms of Service? They’re not published!

    (We get only a brief abstract. These mythical Terms are held in arcane caverns on Holy Facebook Mountain, I guess. Only the “initiated” can know what these Terms are.)

    How can we avoid “entrapment” if Facebook’s algorithms are “trigger-happy?”

    How can we, as innocent users, avoid Facebook’s virtual Dragnet?

    I cannot read minds, nor can I read Facebook’s Terms of Service. They provide only a synopsis.

    For example: I created a cute little text drawing (using keyboard letters) of rabbits in a garden, surrounding the words “Thank You!” I cut and pasted this drawing into the comment boxes of 16 friends, over a period of 29 minutes, within the application “(Lil) Green Patch.” I was merely tending my friends’ “green patches,” and thanking them for “flowers” they’d sent.

    Without warning, without notice, I was abruptly blocked from posting to walls – any walls, including my own – for two days. I was not told how long the block would last, or what I’d done to “violate” Facebook’s (secret) Terms of Service.

    Facebook provides no “due process,” no forum for appeal. It took me a long time to figure out which email address I should use to get a response. The response came three days after the block was lifted. It alluded to sending “large numbers of identical messages in a short period of time.”

    Is “16” a “large” number? Is posting 1 message every 2 minutes on your Facebook friend’s walls the behavior of a bona fide “spammer?”

    I later learned that I fell into the trap called “Identical Messages.” It’s an unspoken, unwritten Term of Service that you must never post identical comments on friends’ walls. Shall I construe that to mean two identical messages? Five? Ten? Are there fluid, shifting “limits,” or are these limits stable?

    Who can follow unpublished Laws? Even Moses knew he had to “come down from the mountain” with his Ten Commandments for all to see – if he expected his people to abide by them, that is.

  17. Darcy says:

    I was banished from facebook.

    They said they warned me or I ignored online warnings but this is not the case.

    I rebooted my computer and firefox asked me if I wanted to reload all my windows and because I had lots of facebook windows (tabs) up, it seemed to trigger a trip wire because only a bunch of the tabs worked and the rest all said “account disabled” or something.

    I was unable to get it back.

    I spent a lot of time uploading pictures and stuff.

    This came to feel like a big ripoff.

    Many people who I’d bump into were mad or concerned since they thought I unfriended them.

    I lost a bunch of relevant connections because I had them in facebook but not in email.

    I’ve not forgiven them and I no longer trust them.


  1. November 22, 2009

    […] Noch jemand berichtet, wie er von Facebook ausgesperrt wurde, weil er Daten (Wall-Posts o.ä.) von einem anderen Nutzer auf… […]