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When Facebook and Google suddenly block the account – digitally

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Samira Djidjeh speaks at a Digital Media Women conference.

(Photo: Henny Radicke)

When Samira Djidjeh sat down in front of her laptop one lunchtime and called up Facebook, she found herself robbed of her digital identity. “I was suddenly logged out and could no longer access my account,” says the digital entrepreneur from Baden-W├╝rttemberg. Facebook asked her to upload her ID or other official document to confirm her age. Djidjeh has been logged on to Facebook for twelve years. The minimum age is 13. Djidjeh is almost three times as old.

“It was a shock to me,” she says. “I am the first chairman of Digital Media Women and am committed to the visibility of women. Our networking is largely based on Facebook, we connect 18,000 people there.” Facebook does not comment publicly on individual cases, but suggests that Djidjeh should simply upload a document instead of trying so hard for himself and the company for weeks.

In fact, Facebook has good reasons to ask people their age. At the end of January, a ten-year-old died in Italy who strangled herself in order to impress other users on Tiktok. Since then, consumer advocates have been increasing the pressure on the platforms. You would have to make sure that no children can enroll.

“No reason, no explanation, nothing”

But Djidjeh doesn’t see why she should suddenly show her ID card or driver’s license after twelve years. “What annoys me most of all is the way in which this proof is requested. No reason, no explanation, nothing.” She is in contact with Facebook, but still only receives the information that she should verify her age.

An overzealous or overly cautious algorithm will detect signs that Djidjeh may be too young. She could prove her age and get her account back. Problem solved? It is not that easy. On the one hand, many people can understand why Djidjeh is uncomfortable with feeding Facebook with official documents in addition to all the data. On the other hand, their experiences are not unique: time and again, large platforms block users for no apparent reason – and it is only rarely enough to upload an ID in order to be able to access the account again.

Facebook's campus is seen on the edge of the San Francisco Bay in Menlo Park

View of the Facebook headquarters in Menlo Park, California.

(Photo: NOAH BERGER / REUTERS)

For those affected, the consequences are often dramatic. In the past decade, billions of people have placed their digital lives in the hands of a few tech companies. You can keep in touch with family and friends via social platforms. Google not only stores personal and work email, but also important documents, photos, and videos. To log into a computer, Microsoft or Apple accounts are often required. Most people don’t realize how dependent they are until it’s too late.

Half of your life depends on your Google account

Google’s support forums are full of desperate users who no longer know what to do. You can lodge a complaint but don’t know at allwhat they are accused of. Sometimes it affects people who have relied on Gmail for 15 years and lose access to all messages from one day to the next. Last year carried the IT portal Golem almost 40 cases of Microsoft users whose accounts were blocked without warning.

It hit Chris even harder, who is said to have violated Google’s guidelines but has no idea what he could have done wrong. He complains on Twitterthat in addition to e-mails and documents, he had also lost access to Google Fi, Google Fiber and Google Pay – and with it his telephone contract, internet access and the app he used to pay debts. Google notified him overnight, he says. “And when I woke up in the morning, everything was gone.” He is unemployed and can no longer see when a company replies to his application.

Such descriptions are difficult to verify, as the alleged victims may be withholding aspects or have inadvertently violated guidelines. In 2019, around hundreds of Google accounts were temporarily blocked after users were too eager to comment with emojis during a YouTube live stream. YouTube’s algorithm had mistaken real enthusiasm for spam and banned the supposed bots.

When you talk to those affected or read their descriptions on Twitter, Reddit and other platforms, you see one thing in common: As with Kafka’s protagonist Gregor Samsa, the event comes suddenly and unexpectedly – and as in his “trial”, the search for explanations seems Kafka-esque. The most powerful and richest communication platforms in the world offer hardly any communication channels for people who are denied access to this infrastructure.

Sometimes the public helps: A writer and photographer got his Apple account back after he was head of IT for the US portal Quartz used to describe his case there. The developer of the video game Terraria fought with Google for more than a month about his account, which the company had blocked. He threatened not to release the game on Google’s Stadia platform as planned and was a success in late February. His account has been unlocked, but Terraria appears after all.

“I will probably never get my account back”

Very few users have such levers. They cannot defend themselves and often have the feeling that they are helplessly at the mercy of the arbitrary algorithms. On the one hand, the corporations are pushing people to enter the closed ecosystems with their skin, hair and all their data.

On the other hand, they offer little support in regaining years or decades of digital life if you are locked out of the online world. It often remains unclear whether the platform is mistaken or the person concerned has made a mistake: The reason for the ban is not even mentioned.

She has not yet decided whether Djidjeh will resign himself and upload her ID. Chris has already given up. “I will probably never get my account back,” he says. Yet he hope his fate a warning to others. “It’s so easy to lose years of memories and moments.”

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