Editorial: Yes, Facebook Controls Your Data

Image credit: iStockphoto/Vladimir Kazakov

In July 2020, the top brass of Big Tech companies Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple were summoned before a House antitrust committee that asked questions about being “cyber barons” and “monopolists.”

Early last month, the House Judiciary Committee issued its 449-paged final report based on this hearing and its investigation. The overall message was clear — Big Tech has gotten too powerful. The report covered topics about competition in digital markets, conflicts of interests, and abuses of power, amongst others.

While there is certainly plenty to write about all four big tech companies, for this particular article, I will focus only on Facebook as a personal account of my recent experience with the social media giant. There are some aspects that I would like to bring attention to — security, control, and competition.

Hacked and Blocked

I received this email message from Facebook at 9.33 p.m. one evening but was not actively checking emails in the evening and was not alerted to the hack on my Facebook account until a few hours later. At almost 2 a.m., when I was about to retire to bed, I received an alert from my bank that my card limit had been reached and a transaction for SGD 824.97 could not go through.

This was extremely surprising to me, and I immediately called up my bank to clarify the situation. They explained that there were seven charges from Facebook, most of them just around a couple of hundred dollars or less, but the last of which had exceeded my account limit.

Now, this would not happen if one did not have a credit card on file. Unfortunately, as I had two business pages on Facebook, I had placed a credit card on my advertiser account. (To Business Pages Owners: In hindsight, a more secure way to do this would be to use PayPal for payments instead of putting in your credit card information. It would add another layer of security protocols that the hacker would need to get past.)

I immediately worked with my bank to cancel the credit card in question and then dispute all those charges. When that was set in motion, I immediately alerted Facebook of the hack.

Someone had sent in an account password change earlier that evening. I had not checked my email and did not notice that. If that were the case, the hacker would still need to access my email account to get the password reset code, right? I checked on my Google email account to ensure that no one else had access to my email, and Google confirmed that my account was secure.

This meant that the hacker did not require the password reset code (since he did not have access to my Gmail account) to access my account.

This was scary, to say the least. I had believed that the password reset code sent through email would add another layer of security but apparently, I was wrong. What does this say about Facebook security? In a matter of hours, I was both hacked and locked out of my account.

Account Disabled

Next, I received an email from Facebook to send an accepted form of ID to secure my account. I had used my nickname “Ceecee” for my Facebook profile name (as for most of my social media accounts). So, I diligently sent in my official ID plus lots of proof of my nickname used with my official ID name.

As it turns out, this was not the problem. Nicknames are allowed on Facebook. https://www.facebook.com/help/112146705538576

By email, I sent in every scrap of ID or information they had asked me for. I didn’t hear from them for a while, so I tried logging in on my side only to find this message displayed.

“Not old enough to be on Facebook”? Definitely a mistake, I thought. Perhaps it was a form statement and not specifically meant for me. I proceeded to contact Facebook by email again and was shocked when they reiterated their stance.

Again I sent them my official ID with a clearly stated date of birth and credit cards as everyone knows full well you can’t be under 13 to own a credit card but to no avail. I continued to send emails but received no response. When I tried to log in, I only got that same message mentioned above displayed. When friends tried to look for my account on Facebook, they got a message that stated my content was not available due to me opting to share it with only a small group of people (untrue), changing who can see it (untrue) or that my content has been deleted (hopefully untrue).

Having joined Facebook in 2009, there is about 11 years’ worth of content that Facebook has just blocked my friends and me from having access to. There is an option to download my content at the top right-hand corner, but after you click on it, you can wait till the cows come home while it blinks to give the impression that a download is taking place. I attempted this several times for hours on end each time, and nothing ever downloaded. I also now no longer have access to my business pages, which were sources of income.

Does Facebook have full control over your social media account? My personal answer is yes — they don’t need to give you a real reason to restrict your account; they can do it anytime they please. When your account is intact, there is no reason to even think that Facebook would do something so unreasonable. I, for one, did not.

Until it happened to me.

Why?

Of course, I have been pondering over the whys. I was surprised Facebook would just block me like this when I had made every effort to be co-operative and sent in every shred of the documents they required. I have always been ever careful not to spam, did not, in my opinion, post anything offensive, and had never had any beef with anyone on Facebook.

So, I came to two conclusions.

One, somebody at Facebook was enjoying his or her little power trip since the social media giant has been known to be unresponsive and opaque when it came to reasons for disabling accounts. Employees who remain anonymous in their communications don’t care too much about providing good customer service because they are mostly not held accountable for their actions.

Two, content I have posted on Facebook has often included posts about blockchain and crypto topics, which were not encouraged by Facebook for more than a year in 2018. Facebook even imposed a direct ban on crypto ads, only to announce a year and a half later that it planned to launch its own cryptocurrency Libra.

That certainly did not win the social media giant many fans in the industry. Most saw their earlier move as a hypocritical attempt to kill off competition.

Killing off competition and copying an acquisition target’s product if they didn’t sell out to Facebook was undoubtedly not an unfamiliar move for the tech giant. As I listened to the House Judiciary Committee question Zuckerberg about how he pressured Instagram co-founder Kevin Systrom to agree to Facebook’s initial offer price of USD 500 million, in an attempt to kill off the competition Instagram posed, I was reminded of Facebook’s Libra endeavor. The social media giant’s ban on crypto ads directly impacted crypto markets at that time. Since ‘buying over’ something decentralized like Bitcoin isn’t a viable option, killing it and then launching an alternative must have seemed the better way.

In any case, I could be wrong, and the reason my account was disabled might be something totally different. However, I am sure that it is not because I am under 13. I have already furnished an iron-clad proof of ID and numerous documentation. Giving a ridiculous reason as their official explanation shows zero regard for their users.

There are already numerous threads online where users complain of being locked out of their accounts “for no reason.” Most get the “not following Facebook Community Standards” excuse but are not really given anything specific.

It is time for users to understand that once your data is on Facebook, you are not in control of your data; Facebook is.

Image credit: iStockphoto/Vladimir Kazakov