A friend of mine recently had their Facebook account disabled, which is generally done when an account is flagged as possibly violating Facebook's Terms and Policies, such as the Terms of Service and/or Community Standards.
This peaked my curiosity about how Facebook chooses to resolve these types of disputes. Plus, I wanted to see if I could help a friend out. So I started by looking for the answers to two questions I like to ask when a dispute arises between a person and a company:
What are the internal dispute resolution mechanisms? and,
What are the external dispute resolution mechanisms?
When your Facebook account is disabled, you have one internal option, and two external options:
Submit an appeal: this is the primary, and only, internal dispute resolution process Facebook offers you if your account is disabled.
Litigation in California: this is the primary external dispute resolution process that you agree to by using Facebook (see, Section 4.4 Disputes).
Going public and getting help from the media: this is an external dispute resolution process, and not one you’d find in the Terms and Policies – you are leveraging extralegal coerced decision-making to force Facebook to address your concerns.
In the next sections, I will go into further detail for each of these three options.
(Note, just because I have these three options listed does not mean that they are your only options. If you find that your account has been disabled and none of these seem promising to you, think about what other approaches you might take to resolve your conflict with Facebook.)
Appealing a Disabled Account (Internal Dispute Resolution)
The appeal process to dispute a disabled Facebook account begins with you receiving a notification, usually when you attempt to login, that your account has been disabled. You can then go to the FAQ: Disabled Accounts where you can find the link to the submit an appeal (note: see the screenshot below; if you click this link and are logged in, you’ll just get an error page asking you to log out first).
You are required to provide at least three pieces of information: your login email address or phone number, your full name, and a picture of your ID. The last field, additional info, seems optional and it isn’t clear if that’s where you should state your appeal. Furthermore, it isn’t exactly clear what happens next, except that Facebook will investigate (so, is this the appeal? Or do you have to wait for Facebook to investigate before you can then appeal?).
One thing that stands out to me is that Facebook relies heavily upon its FAQ and automated response bots. For example, one response message my friend got was titled “Thank you for submitting your ID” and said “We can’t help you with your request until we receive an ID or other document that we can use to confirm that you’re the owner of this account.” So, I guess Facebook’s bots have developed a sense of irony (which makes me wonder if they’ll eventually learn sarcasm, too).
Even if you submit an appeal it isn’t clear whether it has been accepted, or how long it will take to receive a reply (do they send any confirmations?). While I waited to see what would happen with the appeal, I continued my investigation as to what external processes Facebook uses for dispute resolution.
Litigation in California (External Dispute Resolution)
Is It Possible to Talk to a Real Facebook Employee?
If Facebook has been building a walled garden for consumers, then they seem to have also built themselves a walled garden from consumers.
Even thought I had found some answers, I didn’t feel satisfied with what I had found. I still had some questions, like “what are my internal dispute resolution options per Facebook’s terms?” And, “if a disabled account appeal is denied, and I wish to dispute that decision, can you confirm the appropriate external dispute resolution mechanism is litigation in California?” These questions needed answers from a real Facebook employee. How hard could that be? Turns out, very hard.
It took a while before I could ask someone those questions, because actually contacting a real person from Facebook is very difficult, especially if your problem is with Facebook itself. Much of Facebook’s help center is an expansive FAQ. And, if your answer isn’t there, you can turn to the Help Community or the Business Help Community for possible answers. However, neither of those communities guarantee that a response will be from someone actually employed at Facebook, and all responses are publicly available (when I tried to submit my questions, I received errors each time saying “this content is no longer available”). There is supposed to be a live chat feature for the Business Help Community, but it was put on hold about a month ago.
[Edit 03/06/19: the live chat feature appears active now, but limited to supporting advertisers: “Businesses that advertise on Facebook now have access to one-on-one support through live online chat. By clicking “Get Help” on the Facebook for Business website, advertisers can chat and screen share with a trained Ads Specialist to get quick answers to their Facebook advertising questions.”]
Facebook, thus, appears to be silent on how to privately get more information directly from someone at Facebook. I did eventually manage to track down a possible email address for Facebook’s Legal Department: firstname.lastname@example.org. But I got this email address from multiple Google searches for Facebook’s Legal Department, rather than from Facebook itself. (For finding pertinent information, it actually seems like search engines have been more helpful than Facebook’s own help center and search features.)
So, while it seemed like it would be a long shot, since I had little else to go on I went ahead and emailed email@example.com:
To Facebook’s Legal Department:
I am inquiring as to the options one has after a disabled account appeal has been denied. My understanding is that an appeal is considered final in terms of internal dispute resolution. If someone contests the basis of that appeal, does Facebook use binding arbitration or litigation? The terms (rights and responsibilities) indicate that Facebook no longer uses binding arbitration and instead requires disputes to be resolved in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California or a state court located in San Mateo County.
Could you please let me know:
Is the disable account appeal the final internal process for disputing a disabled account, or are there other internal escalations one can use prior to moving to external dispute resolution processes?
Is the appropriate external dispute resolution process litigation at the above mentioned locations?
Thank you for your assistance. The FAQ and community help forums were unable to answer these questions above, and getting in touch with someone from Facebook for answers has been challenging. Thank you for your time.
David W. Angel
[If I receive a response, I'll be placing it here.]
Going Public and Getting Help From the Media (External Dispute Resolution)
While waiting for Facebook to respond to the appeal, I also examined other options for getting answers. In other words, if I cannot find a reasonable way to resolve this issue, what else can I do? One solution would be to get help from an organization that would have the resources to help, and a mutually beneficial reason for helping: the media.
A media organization might be interested in this type of story for four reasons: 1) Facebook is well known, 2) a large company making life difficult for everyday people is a problem many can relate to, 3) this is a problem without a clear answer, and 4) although many people won’t face the fear of having their Facebook account disabled, that potential fear makes for captivating content. In other words, this is a story of “that could be me.”
This could be a helpful option because media organizations have more power than the average person. This is due to three reasons: 1) one of their specialties is in finding out information that might otherwise be unavailable to the average person, 2) they have a large audience that will listen and pay attention, and 3) they specialize in making content both captivating and shareable so that the impact is wider than just the initial audience. These factors together provide a decent chance that at least some answers will be found, especially once individual information gathering has been exhausted.
So, as I am getting more information, I am keeping these types of organizations in mind. (For example, programs like NBC 5 Responds, which is a Chicago based program by the NBC 5 Investigates team and is specifically about consumer complaints and problems.)
Facebook Skips the Most Fundamental Conflict Resolution Processes
Facebook leaves a lot to be desired when it comes to its dispute resolution mechanisms.
Facebook successfully leverages its massive size to employ power unilaterally: consumers are ultimately bound by what Facebook decides, and escalation mechanisms appear completely absent. In other words, Facebook uses administrative decisions to dictate its resolutions upon those that are bound by them. And if you don’t like that, you are forced to escalate conflict towards more coercive and win-lose processes, like entering into litigation (legal, authoritative decision-making) or going to a more powerful third party to help you force Facebook’s hands (extralegal coerced decision-making).
Facebook essentially skips through private decision-making processes like negotiation and informal dialogue and problem-solving. It likely weighed the cost of having real people in customer service against the benefit of resolving conflicts early in their development, and then decided that an FAQ was Facebook’s best option. However, by relying solely upon its FAQ (regardless of how comprehensive that FAQ is) and Help Communities, Facebook renders the option to engage in private decision-making by the parties nearly impossible. This puts the entire burden of trying to resolve a conflict almost completely on the party having that problem (i.e., the burden is on your shoulders, not Facebook’s).
The Faceless Giant
By eschewing collaborative problem-solving, Facebook comes across as a faceless giant, one that cares little about seeing your problems, hearing your concerns, or talking to you about your options. I know that Facebook is working on these problems, but until it can successful engage its consumers in a meaningful dialogue then this general perception will last, regardless of whether it is deserved or not.
So, how did this all end for my friend and their disabled account? Well, right around the time a journalist reached out to Facebook to inquire as to the reason the account was disabled, their Facebook account was reinstated. It might have just been a coincidence, but I find it to be a coincidence that would make a pretty good hook for a press piece.
Hopefully, if you ever find your account disabled, this article will help you in the process of recovering your account, and hopefully with less frustration than seems common for those in this situation.
Please note: this article is not intended to serve as legal advice. If you are in need of legal assistance, please contact a licensed attorney or your State Bar Association.
Updated 03/06/2019 - links and document names. Other changes to content are noted in text.