We get a lot of requests for help here at EFF, with our tireless intake coordinator being the first point of contact for many. All too often, however, the help needed isn’t legal or technical. Instead, users just need an answer to a simple question: what does this company want me to do to get my account back?
People lose a lot when they lose their account. For example, being kicked off Amazon could mean losing access to your books, music, pictures, or anything else you have only licensed, not bought, from that company. But the loss can have serious financial consequences for people who rely on the major social media platforms for their livelihoods, the way video makers rely on YouTube or many artists rely on Facebook or Twitter for promotion.
And it’s even worse when you can’t figure out why your account was closed, much less how to get it restored. The deep flaws in the DMCA takedown process are well-documented, but at least the rules of a DMCA takedown are established and laid out in the law. Takedowns based on ill-defined company policies, not so much.
Over the summer, writer and meme king Chuck Tingle found his Twitter account suspended due to running afoul of Twitter’s ill-defined repeat infringer policy. That they have such a policy is not a problem in and of itself: to take advantage of the DMCA safe harbor, Twitter is required to have one. It’s not even a problem that the law doesn’t specify what the policy needs to look like—flexibility is vital for different services to do what makes the most sense for them. However, a company has to make a policy with an actual, tangible set of rules if they expect people to be able to follow it.
This is what Twitter says:
What happens if my account receives multiple copyright complaints?
If multiple copyright complaints are received Twitter may lock accounts or take other actions to warn repeat violators. These warnings may vary across Twitter’s services. Under appropriate circumstances we may suspend user accounts under our repeat infringer policy. However, we may take retractions and counter-notices into account when applying our repeat infringer policy.
That is frustratingly vague. “Under appropriate circumstances” doesn’t tell users what to avoid or what to do if they run afoul of the policy. Furthermore, if an account is suspended, this does not tell users what to do to get it back. We’ve confirmed that “We may take retractions and counter-notices into account when applying our repeat infringer policy” means that Twitter may restore the account after a suspension or ban, in response to counter-notices and retractions of copyright claims. But an equally reasonable reading of it is that they will take those things into account only before suspending or banning a user, so counter-noticing won’t help you get your account back if you lost it after a sudden surge in takedowns.
And that assumes you can even send a counter-notice. When Tingle lost his account under its repeat infringer policy, he found that because his account was suspended, he couldn’t use Twitter’s forms to contest the takedowns. That sounds like a minor thing, but it makes it very difficult for users to take the steps needed to get their accounts back.
Often, being famous or getting press attention to your plight is the way to fast-track getting restored. When Facebook flagged a video of a musician playing a public domain Bach piece, and Sony refused to release the claim, the musician got it resolved by making noise on Twitter and emailing the heads of various Sony departments. Most of us don’t have that kind of reach.
Even when there are clear policies, those rules mean nothing if the companies don’t hold up their end of the bargain. YouTube’s Content ID rules claim a video will be restored if, after an appeal, a month goes by with no word from the complaining party. But there are numerous stories from creators in which a month passes, nothing happens, and nothing is communicated to them by YouTube. While YouTube’s rules need fixing in many ways, many people would be grateful if YouTube would just follow those rules.
These are not new concerns. Clear policies, notice to users, and a mechanism for appeal are at the core of the Santa Clara principles for content moderation. They are basic best practices for services that allow users to post content, and companies that have been hosting content for more than a decade have no excuse not to follow them.
EFF is not a substitute for a company helpline. Press attention is not a substitute for an appeals process. And having policies isn’t a substitute for actually following them.