Karissa Bell, reporting for Engadget:

Last month, Ray Palena boarded a plane from New Jersey to California to appear in court. He found himself engaged in a legal dispute against one of the largest corporations in the world, and improbably, the venue for their David-versus-Goliath showdown would be San Mateo’s small claims court.

Over the course of eight months and an estimated $700 (mostly in travel expenses), he was able to claw back what all other methods had failed to render: his personal Facebook account.

Those may be extraordinary lengths to regain a digital profile with no relation to its owner’s livelihood, Palena is one of a growing number of frustrated users of Meta’s services who, unable to get help from an actual human through normal channels of recourse, are using the court system instead. And in many cases, it’s working.

Engadget spoke with five individuals who have sued Meta in small claims court over the last two years in four different states. In three cases, the plaintiffs were able to restore access to at least one lost account. One person was also able to win financial damages and another reached a cash settlement. Two cases were dismissed. In every case, the plaintiffs were at least able to get the attention of Meta’s legal team, which appears to have something of a playbook for handling these claims.

What a wild, fascinating story. Meta users, primarily on Facebook, receive no support from Meta’s account recovery teams, so they sue the company in small claims court for up to $10,000. Meta usually requests for plaintiffs to drop the case, but since they don’t, it rarely ever shows up to court to defend itself, resulting in a victory and financial recourse for the plaintiffs. It’s a genius idea to receive financial compensation for this very prominent problem so many people face: Either the user makes some money or they regain access to their account because Meta doesn’t want to litigate the suit.

Meta can’t possibly have a large enough legal team to show up to court for every small claims suit it has to defend, so it simply doesn’t. I don’t think any company on the planet has that much time. What it should do, however, is build out its customer support team to adequately address users’ concerns, especially if their accounts are hacked or suspended for no reason. These are common issues that arise on social platforms, but because Meta did the cost-benefit analysis to determine whether litigation is a more cost-effective solution than hiring more support staff, customers are stuck at the receiving end of Meta’s failures.

As Bell writes, yes, these are extraordinary lengths — but they’re also lengths to hold the world’s largest platforms accountable for their actions. Google, Meta, Apple, and Microsoft quite literally are integral parts of people’s livelihoods, so their support staff should be, if anything, more advanced and up-to-snuff than the government’s bureaucrats. (Arguably, government bureaucrats, such as the ones who work for the Internal Revenue Service, are also useless.) These large platforms essentially act as governments of the private sector; what would happen to the world if Microsoft banned a whole Fortune 500 company’s accounts erroneously? A massive chunk of the economy could fall apart.

Customer service shouldn’t just be limited to “paying” customers — it should be available to everyone, regardless of if they have an account or not, because these companies are so crucial to so many people’s lives. Social media isn’t just a fun section of the web for the nerdy anymore, and platforms need to begin treating it like the essential service that it is.