Reputational risk and social media: When you're blocked or banned without notice

Businesses depend on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, and Apple to interact with customers, promote their messages and store content. One complaint against you can shut you off from those services and damage your brand.

social media multiple logos
Personeelsnet, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr

Absolutely nothing can justify the recent deranged YouTube office shooter’s horrific actions, but her main known complaint, that YouTube suddenly and irreversibly impacted her income by unilaterally changing its policies, brings up an important point: The online services we all rely on to conduct personal and professional activity can suddenly, permanently remove content or block accounts.

There is little to nothing you can do about it. There are no judges, arbitration panels, or independent referees to review your case. You almost certainly never will speak with a human to plead for a reversal.

The CIA security triad stands for confidential, integrity, and availability. This is an availability story. A single complaint against you can make your company’s existing content and files immediately inaccessible with little to no recourse. Any company’s branding site on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc. can be suddenly and immediately blocked causing reputation and branding issues.

Apple blocked me

Many years ago, Apple blocked my iTunes account. Hackers who didn’t like what I wrote about them have occasionally targeted me. Once, two enterprising misfits launched a denial of service (DoS) attack on Apple’s iTunes servers, using forged origination IP addresses taken from my home cable router. Apple responded by blacklisting my IP address…forever.

Suddenly, I couldn’t log onto my iTunes or buy music. I went from buying hundreds of dollars in albums and songs a month to nothing. The two hackers wrote me an email telling me what they had done and “wished me good luck” in fixing it.

I tried in vain for many months to get Apple to unblock my iTunes account. I quickly learned, at least back then, that there was no public email address for such complaints. Never one to quit easily, I emailed every Apple and iTunes support email support address I could find to no avail. I emailed friends who worked at Apple, and they could not help me.

In a desperate last move, I wrote about the problem in my public weekly column, hoping that someone in Apple would read it and help me fix the issue. It didn’t work. Guess no one from Apple reads my columns.

Then I learned that all I had to do was update my IP address. Apple hadn’t blocked my iTunes account, just my IP address. I got my cable provider to update my IP address, and everything worked again. Still, it was an early lesson learned about the lack of good support options if you feel you’ve been unfairly wronged by an online service.

The internet is littered with stories from thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people who suddenly had their online media presence permanently erased forever. Here’s one example, another one, and one more. Sometimes it was because a single person complained about some questionable, objectionable content (e.g., breast feeding, coarse language, or mature themes).

Other times it was because the service’s own automated or human-based censors objected to some content, which might have been present for years without any viewer complaints. Maybe it was an unintentional copyright violation or filing of a DMCA claim. Or as was the case with the YouTube incident, a change in existing policy.

Whichever way, it doesn’t take a lot to get blocked. In our instantaneous media world, most services subscribe to the “block on first complaint and worry about the consequences later” policy.

Although the vast majority of unilaterally blocked sites have been against persons who grossly violated well known and widely socially accepted mores, many businesses, mostly smaller, have also been impacted. Today, any business of a decent size must have multiple online media presences (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Ebay, or Etsy) to connect with their customers and potential employees.

Many businesses use online file storage services (e.g., Dropbox, Microsoft Skydrive, or iTunes). Even if the company doesn’t use the free, consumer versions, it’s very likely that their employees do…and use them to store and transfer critical files and content.

Danger Will Robinson

It is very, very dangerous for any person or business to rely upon an online service for their content viewing and storage where the contract does not give the customer the absolute right to retrieve their content before its presence is blocked. It is possible that even very large and well-known companies might have their content suddenly blocked without prior notice.

Expect more business-related blockings in the future. Business can no longer be conducted without an online presence, and those who disagree with your business can hurt your online presence. You can expect that if your business, someone representing your business, or even something as simple as an ad you hosted offends someone, there will be an online response to hurt your business. It’s the nature of the world we live in today. Those responses could include blocking your company’s online social media presence.

Don’t think it can happen to your company? Don’t think your company can do anything so egregious as to be removed without warning? What you think is very normal and not offensive to your customers can suddenly be declared otherwise. Here are some examples in the news:

Problems with online social media sites

There is no one online social media site and policy. Each has its own terms of acceptable use and list of what will get you banned. However, there are many common concerning themes:

  • One complaint out of millions of viewers can get you banned.
  • Sites and services can unilaterally change their acceptable use policies without previous notice.
  • Your content can be made suddenly, without warning, irretrievable forever.
  • You will not have an easy time trying to reverse the block.
  • There is no phone number or human you can call.
  • You will probably not be successful in a lawsuit against the site or service.

To compound the potential injury of being unfairly blocked, surprisingly, you might have a hard time getting negative content or reviews of your company removed, even if they have been declared illegal. Just ask any of the revenge porn victims who have attempted to get pictures of themselves removed.

Silencing any critic, even one that is making a blatantly false claim is nearly impossible. If it feels unfair, it’s a result of the online services getting thousands of block requests a day. They must automate as much of the process as possible. They could not offer their services if they had humans involved in the review process every time.

4 steps to prepare for being blocked online

So, what can you do?

  1. Realize that being suddenly blocked is possible for any company.
  2. Make sure the people that manage your online social media presence know each site’s terms of acceptable use and read every update. (I would hate that job.)
  3. Research and document the links and processes you must use if your company’s site gets blocked.
  4. Most importantly, make sure that all content is saved and backed up in an offline repository where you can access and re-use it if needed.

In a nutshell, know the rules, read the updates, prepare for a possible blocking ahead of time, and back up your content before it is permanently blocked.

This story, "Reputational risk and social media: When you're blocked or banned without notice" was originally published by CSO.

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