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Shadow Banning

I started this blog because I’m tired of automated algorithmic policy enforcement online, and having exhausted all other avenues, I’ve taken to the “public airwaves” to air my grievances. Not only does it affect me, it’s presumptuous, callous, and care-less. That the companies such as Amazon and Facebook and Twitter and Google can do this with impunity is maddening.

My base case is that Amazon has shut me out of my account, my “buyer’s account”, which started with me not being able to buy from them, but evolved to me not being to log in and thus have any access to 10’s of thousands of family photos, hundreds of audio books, no access to Prime anything, and basically a shadow ban of any activity which would naturally be possible within an Amazon account. You can read my story elsewhere on this blog.

Recently there was a good article in WAPO by Geoffrey A. Fowler on the practice of shadow banning. Here’s a link to that article.

“Shadow banning” as described in the article is, essentially, the same phenomenon as I and others have described in our stories (some in comments). In my case I was locked out of my Amazon buyer’s account and have not been able to get back in, nor can I even learn why, other than some risk of something (I really don’t know what). Because I can’t log in to buy, I can’t log in to see my family photos; I can’t listen to my 100+ audio books on Audible; I can’t use anything about my Amazon account. And I have no recourse.

Understanding that my situation was “shadow banning”, too, (essentially I am locked out of using my account) was helpful. That it was being written about it a major publication made me feel less alone, and like maybe something would happen, some day. It’s really hard to just be cast out and denied access to one’s account, especially without knowing why, and especially with no way of ever addressing the issue (I have tried. Read my story). I was delighted to read that there is some draft legislation about shadow banning. I will be diving into that and plan to follow those developments closely.

What’s your story? Have you had any success? Have you ever actually spoken to a human being who solved your problem? Do tell. Please post your story.

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My Dead End Customer Service Story

DEAD END SIGN

Like millions of people around the world, I happily used Amazon for lots of things. I loved the convenience of buying from Amazon. I was delighted that Amazon Photos offered such an easy (and free!) service that suggested names for the faces in tens of thousands of photos I was cataloging. I liked Amazon Prime movies. Amazon was my savior during the pandemic!

And then one day, just like that, Amazon denied me access to my account. I couldn’t log in. I tried, and was asked to contact customer service to verify something. No big deal: I did that and was assured that within 24 hours I would regain access.

But I didn’t get access. So, I called again and had the same conversation with someone, complete with the closing assurance that “within 24 hours” I would regain access.

But that didn’t happen either. And because I couldn’t log in to buy something on Amazon, that meant I couldn’t access my photos. I was mid-way through a giant process consolidating and organizing thousands of personal family photos.

And then I got an email notifying me that my Audible account was being closed. And then another Amazon service I used was closed. And then another…

Years of my photos, one hundred + Audible titles, access to my account in any way, all gone.

Of course I called. I talked to supervisors. I had more than 25 actual conversations with Amazon customer service reps. Nothing worked. Not only could they not help me, they couldn’t tell me why I had lost access. They suggested it might have something to do with my credit card, but they weren’t sure.

I looked for consumer advocates. I contacted Cory Doctorow, a well-known consumer advocate, at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, where I donate monthly. Cory at least wrote back, expressing interest. We maintain contact.

I looked for class action lawsuits to join. Didn’t find any. Know of one? Count me in, first in line. I’ll even be a plaintiff!

I found email addresses for some of the Amazon executives and their assistants. I knew it was a longshot to contact them directly. I never heard back.

I contacted some senior Amazon execs via LinkedIn. Again, I knew this wouldn’t go anywhere but I had no options.

I even wrote to my elected representatives. I know, it seems silly, but I did it. I never heard back.

One day, some months after having resigned myself to this situation, I had a new idea. Maybe Amazon confused my buyers account with a sellers account! Once upon a time I may have signed up for such a thing, I think? Maybe someone had hacked into my sellers account and was selling porn or something. Who knows. It was worth a try.

So I called Amazon with this new idea! The customer service rep could see that I had called more than 25 times before. This person seemed sympathetic and agreed, that maybe, just MAYBE this was the issue. They took down my info…

Not long after this I received an email from an Amazon customer service rep! This was a first! And they had assigned me a case number! I honestly thought that maybe I had cracked it. I was so excited. I eagerly replied to the person (or bot..) who wrote, and I thanked them SO MUCH for addressing my problem.

Of course, that email bounced. They had written to me from a donotreply@ address. Silly me. In my eagerness I had rushed to reply. I re-read the email and saw that there was a link for me to click. That’s how I could respond.

And guess what? I had to be logged in to access the link….

F*CK them.

Of course, not being able to log in was the whole problem I started with. I called and explained and, again, was promised that within 24 hours someone would reach out to me. But no one ever did.

And over the next few days I watched helplessly as the person (or bot) I wrote to sent one, two, and three messages, eventually concluding that I was not going to respond, and so they closed my “case.”

The thing is, they actually don’t want to interact. If they did, they’d fix this type of problem. Amazon, Facebook, etc, – these places all have the best software engineers. They could easily fix customer service dead ends like the one I and thousands of others find ourselves in. But they don’t fix it, because it’s cheaper to just handle customer service issues like mine in this way, than it is to actually provide service which might result in a solution.

The “account security department”, if there even is one staffed with humans, is a black box, accessible (it seems) to no one. Who knows: maybe it’s just a friggin’ CPU on a shelf somewhere! There’s definitely no way for a customer service agent to reach out to them. No phone extension, nothing. The customer service reps are powerless to actually help. Why?

Because THIS IS BY DESIGN. Read this important NYT article where the reporter, Seth Kugel, digs into this vile practice.

I am like so many others: I have had my run-ins with Amazon, Google, Facebook and Twitter, getting a slap on the wrist for a post or a complaint about same. Google simultaneously begs me to connect my online store to Google Shopping, and then we I do I get a barrage of emails telling me I have violated their terms of service. Evidently they think I’m selling heroin when, actually, I have a small spice store. They all use opaque algorithmic “adjudication” processes to flag violators – fair enough – but then sometimes, like in my case, there’s no actionable resolution process. Once I was banned from Twitter (which I rarely use any more) within seconds of posting something critical of a certain politician’s son who is kind of a loudmouth on social media: I called him an idiot (I stand behind this). The whole process including penalty was entirely automated. You could watch it happen. Anyway, it wasn’t nice of me and I accepted my fate and was liberated in some hours. But that was no big deal.

I was banned on Facebook once for a few days once. I don’t remember my offense, but it was based on a scoring algorithm that had determined that I had apparently accumulated enough points (complaints?) to be banned. The weird thing about that was the offending activity occurred in a company page, not on my personal account, but the ban extended across ALL pages including my personal account. It was chilling, to say the least, and reminded me a lot of China’s “social credit system“, something awful which “could never happen in America” (except it happens on tech commerce and social platforms in America many times every day). Under Facebook’s rules (apparently) my behavior under one identity affected all identities, all pages, and I ran a business or two for other people, so that was a wakeup call to get out of Facebook. I actually deleted my Facebook profile a year ago: I’m done with it.

In this situation with Amazon, my buyer’s account (the type of ordinary account we all use to buy stuff) has been suspended for reasons I seem to be unable to learn¬†about, and it’s not coming back. And Amazon uses that one login for all their services. While they might seem separate, they’re not.

My account was turned of June 15, 2021 and as I write this it’s Dec 16, 2022.

Imagine if Amazon became the source for my pharmaceutical prescriptions (as they would like to), and then because my buyers account became suspect and is put on “hold”, I can’t get refills of some critical medicine. I would have zero recourse, and they have no accountability? I don’t think so. It’s a bad, and potentially dangerous, business practice.

And it’s designed to be this way: These large tech platforms act without recourse, and then have the nerve to call this “customer service”, knowing that there are some casualties, like me, whose crime is determined mathematically, and whose punishment is absolute. These practices are impersonal, arbitrary, unaccountable, indefensible, and wrong. Who cares if these methods save them money. Not I. I want my 10,000 photos back.

I started this blog to collect other people’s stories. I know I am not alone, but I sure feel alone. There are thousands and thousands of people, just like me, who have been affected in this same way. There is no escape from this Hell. And it’s not just that I can’t buy stuff (I opened a new account easily enough). It’s the family photos, the audiobooks, the indignity, the impunity with which they ignore us, with no consequences.

I invite you to post your story here. If we make enough noise, they will have to listen.