Imagine that one day you come back from a walk and you can’t open the door of your house. You try and try, but your key won’t turn. You try to ring the doorbell but a machine responds, telling you that you have breached the contract conditions and you cannot enter. “What conditions?” you ask yourself, but the machine doesn’t explain. It refers you to a legal page without explaining what you have done or giving you the option to respond. You don’t get to go home and collect your belongings or say goodbye to the neighbors. You can never enter that building again.
This scenario has happened to thousands of people in the virtual world. Being banned from a video game or a social network might have been a minor issue a few years ago, but the enormous importance they have taken on in recent times for work and social lives means that a lifelong expulsion can pose a serious problem. Almost all major social media companies expel their users without explanation. In some cases, the most practical thing to do is to get a new account. In others, one must simply give up.
Carolina has been kicked off Tinder. This 38-year-old from Madrid discovered a year ago that she had been expelled from the world’s most popular dating app. “Suddenly one day I go to log in and I get the message that my account was canceled for breaking the rules and I’m like... what? I haven’t broken any rules.” Carolina tried to write to Tinder, but her emails seemingly passed into a void. “They responded with automatic messages. I was outraged and I felt totally helpless,” she recalls.
Although this seems like an amusing anecdote to share with friends, it can be a real disruption. Half of today’s couples meet in virtual environments. A recent Stanford University study put the percentage at 39% for heterosexual couples and 60% for same-sex couples. One in five couples who married in Spain in 2019 had met through one of these apps, according to the wedding portal Bodas.net. Living in digital exile limits the chances of finding a partner or friends.
“It is the main way to meet people. Between the pace of life, work and the [Covid-19] limitations on having a social life,” agrees Carlos, a 32-year-old who has been banned from Tinder for almost a year now. “They kicked me off without any explanation. I talked about it with a lawyer friend and I considered filing a complaint, because it seems indefensible legally speaking. In the end, you have private conversations on there, you make contact with people you are getting to know. But it doesn’t make sense to get into trouble with a US company that doesn’t even answer your emails. I don’t have the time, money or desire.”
If we feel that our rights have been violated, let’s start fighting this where it needs to be fought, which is in the courtsSamuel Parra, lawyer specializing in law in the digital environment
This is the main reason why most users do not file a complaint, according to David Maeztu, a lawyer specializing in technology issues. “On the one hand, we have a kind of right of admission transferred to the online environment. But this must be considered in relation to how it affects other user rights. A website or a very small game, where you could find another alternative, is not the same as apps, which, due to their size, may limit the user’s relations with third parties.”
Carolina believes that some scorned potential suitor may have reported allegedly inappropriate behavior on Tinder and that was why she was kicked off. She has bought a new SIM card to reregister in the app with another number. Carlos suspects something similar, though for the moment he has not returned to the platform.
Monica, 25, believes she was kicked off because she wrote she was looking for a sugar daddy in her bio. “I did it as a joke. But the robot that reads the descriptions didn’t think it was funny,” she says. Raul, 39, believes that the algorithm must have read some word or expression of his out of context. None of the four people mentioned above received an explanation by emailing Tinder’s complaints department when they were banned. In addition, Tinder did not want to respond to this newspaper’s request for comment.
Sex crimes online grew by 12% in 2020, according to data from Spain’s Interior Ministry. Sixty percent of women aged 18-34 were repeatedly messaged after asking contacts to stop on dating apps, 57% received unsolicited sexual messages and 44% had been insulted, according to a study by Pew Research. Tinder has a code of conduct for this reason (views of which have increased in recent months) and a button that users can press when they are talking to someone and feel uncomfortable. At the end of 2021, Tinder announced the implementation of two new functions based on artificial intelligence. When the platform detects any word or expression marked as negative it will ask the sender, “Are you sure?” before sending it. If they hit send regardless, it will ask the recipient: “Are you uncomfortable with this message?” These are preventive measures, but the ultimate and most effective response remains the same: expelling users who do not comply with its rules.
“It’s clear that they have to do that. The problem is not that they kick people off, but how they do it,” explains Samuel Parra, a lawyer specializing in law in the digital environment. “Why don’t they establish a dialogue between the parties? Why don’t they give the right to reply or explain the reasons why?” Parra answers his own questions by referring to the mammoth size of platforms like Tinder. “They would need a legion of moderators, and it’s cheaper to send an automatic message.”
Fortnite and Instagram
Getting a new Tinder account involves getting a new phone number. But when the same happens with an online videogame linked to Playstation, Xbox or Steam accounts, being kicked off can mean losing hundreds of euros in downloaded games and in-app purchases. This hits younger players especially hard. “For many kids, Fortnite is much more than a video game. It’s a social environment to meet up with their peers. If you exclude them from that environment it’s going to have an impact on their life,” explains Parra. Fortnite expels users for life if it suspects they have cheated.
If you ask for explanations, users with names like Cronomeister, Alpha or Agent Leviathan respond with automatic, general and ambiguous messages. They do not give explanations or listen to arguments. In some cases, the expulsion can cut off a source of income. Fortnite does not give users the option to defend themselves and only answers emails automatically. Its creators assure that the platform will have a relevant role in the future of the metaverse – a place yet to be built from which thousands of people are already banned.
The impact of being banned might seem less serious on social networks such as Facebook or Instagram, as getting a new account only involves using a new email address. But in being banned, a user loses all private information and contacts. After all, having turned our lives digital doesn’t mean we’ve given a company permission to manage that life. “You cannot prevent us from accessing our data without giving us explanations, because it goes beyond the use of the app itself. You can’t contact people or even delete your data,” Parra points out.
Data protection regulations supersede the terms and conditions of any platform. One Instagram user successfully used this avenue to regain access to his Instagram account. “He said, ‘you guys canceled my account without notice or ability to defend myself, okay. But I have personal data in that account and you can’t deny me access to it’,” the lawyer explains. Meta, the company that owns Instagram, restored access to his account as soon as it received the request. “They did not want the word to spread, as there are many people in that situation and a court judgment has a lot of repercussions. That’s why there are hardly any court rulings on the matter, it never goes to trial.”
It also helps that no one reports these incidents, though Parra believes this attitude should change. “If we feel that our rights have been violated, let’s start fighting this where it needs to be fought, which is not on Twitter, but in the courts.” The acceptance of terms and conditions doesn’t justify the platform’s behavior, he argues. “Just because you sign them doesn’t give them the right to do whatever they want.”
Lawyer David Maeztu has come to a similar conclusion. He understands that digital environments have to be protected from harassers and cheats, but at the same time platforms cannot strip users of their rights. “The fact that there is no dispute resolution mechanism available to complain or argue back is indefensible legally speaking,” he says. A company’s unilateral decision should not become final, he says. “Especially when that decision excludes users from an important part of their life, even if it is digital.”