Access denied: What happens when you're locked out of your digital lifelines?

The likes of Google, Facebook and Apple have the power to disable our access without a moment's notice, but re-entry can be quite a mission

(FILES) This file photo illustration picture taken in London on December 18, 2020 shows the logos of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft displayed on a mobile phone and a laptop screen. - Google, Twitter and Amazon are hopeful that Joe Biden's incoming administration in the United States will enact a federal digital data law, senior company officials said at CES, the annual electronics and technology show. "I think the stars are better aligned than ever in the past," Keith Enright, Google's chief data privacy office, told a discussion January 12, 2021 on trust and privacy. (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS / AFP)

The internet is widely considered to be a human right. Billions of us would struggle without it. As such, some of the biggest technology companies in the world now provide what have become essential services.

Google and Apple have actively positioned themselves at the centre of our lives; we use them to communicate, to get from A to B, to work and to play. We don’t always realise how much we rely on them, and quietly assume they’ll be there whenever we need them – but what if access to your digital life was suddenly withdrawn, with no recourse to appeal and no understanding of why you’d been locked out?

It can happen. The latest high-profile case involves a game studio, Re-Logic, and its president, Andrew Spinks, co-author of multi-million selling game Terraria.

At the end of January, access to the firm’s entire Google account of 15 years – including YouTube, Gmail and all purchases made on Google Play – was disabled for unknown reasons. In a statement posted on Twitter after three weeks of trying and failing to regain access, Spinks expressed his anger in forceful terms.

“I absolutely have not done anything to violate your terms of service, so I can take this no other way than you deciding to burn this bridge. My company will no longer support any of your platforms moving forward. I will not be involved with a corporation that values their customers and partners so little.”

Google doesn’t need Re-Logic’s business to survive, but this only provides a stark reminder of the one-sided relationship we have with so-called Big Tech, and our lack of power in cases where we feel unfairly treated.

Cases crop up all the time: the Android user locked out of his Google account after he moved to a different city, with attempts to regain access denied; the journalist shut out of Apple’s services after unwittingly spending a fraudulent iTunes gift card; a small business banned from Google Shopping as its business began to boom.

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I can still use GMail, YouTube and countless other services. I can place orders in their store. So do they believe I'm a bad guy or not?

In each case, there was a notable lack of information given about the supposed misdemeanour.

“We will not be restoring your account.” “See the terms and conditions.” “It is our policy to not discuss the specific reasons for an account closure.”

These are just the cases we hear about. Often, publicity can lead to accounts being reinstated, but game developer Todd Mitchell, who was banned for life from one Google service, AdSense, in 2015, finds this lack of consistency troubling.

“Would you [reinstate an account] for someone you believe defrauded you, just because you found out they were popular?” he asks. “I can still use GMail, YouTube and countless other services. I can place orders in their store. So do they believe I’m a bad guy or not? I suspect they don’t want to spend time to resolve their own bans, or they’re comfortable enforcing them even when they can’t prove the account holder is to blame.”

The problem essentially stems from the size of firms such as Google, Facebook and Apple. Having offered free services to the world on a massive scale, providing meaningful customer service to billions of people is inherently difficult.

The terms of service we agree to when we sign up – many pages in length – often grant authority for our access to be denied for any number of reasons without explanation.

LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 16: Meghan Trainor attends The Voice UK 2019 photocall at The Soho Hotel on December 16, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images)

Then there’s the sheer breadth of the services they provide; a firm which oversees the reviews you post on a shopping portal might also be the one you use to control your home thermostat. Having a single point of failure for your entire digital existence is unwise, but it’s something we’ve been encouraged to embrace.

“I don’t know what’s worse: being locked out or locked in,” says Aral Balkan, co-founder of non-profit Small Technology Foundation. “Perhaps it isn’t a great idea to give a handful of trillion-dollar Silicon Valley monopolies complete control over our lives in the digital network age.”

We may consider the likelihood of us being on the receiving end of a ban to be too small to worry about. Spare a thought, then, for Seattle artist Meghan Trainor, who in 2019 was locked out of multiple online accounts for the crime of having the same name as a pop star 20 years her junior.

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Realistically, I think new laws are always going to trail behind a lot of damage. It's more important we learn to limit the risks we take

Our own forgetfulness or poor security practices can also land us in the same position. Google, Apple and the like offer account recovery facilities if we forget our password or are unlucky enough to be hacked, but unless we keep those details up to date – back-up email addresses, phone numbers, devices – we can be locked out, often permanently.

Companies must retain the right to deny access to certain customers. Countless online accounts are banned every day for perfectly legitimate reasons to keep the rest of us safe.

But there are growing calls for better appeal procedures for cases of injustice, or better laws to recognise how critical these services have become to modern life.

“Realistically, I think new laws are always going to trail behind a lot of damage. It’s more important we learn to limit the risks we take,” says Mitchell.

“I think we’re still coming to terms with the fact that these essential and convenient service providers can’t be expected to look after our best interests. Governing bodies will step in when a problem gets too big to ignore, but we’re responsible for developing a situational awareness online, just like in the real world, to make sure we’re not tripped up.”