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Dylan’s Desk: Facebook takes aim at gun sales, but it misses the mark

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Facebook gave in to pressure from anti-gun activists this week, announcing that it would be taking a more active approach to removing content related to the sale of illegal weapons.

Or did it?

There’s little doubt that pressure from groups like Moms Demand Action and the Michael Bloomberg-backed Mayors Against Illegal Guns, as well as active interest from the New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman, helped crystallize Facebook’s position.

What’s more, the attorney general’s office told us, coverage by VentureBeat helped push the change forward.

“The strong investigative reporting in the last few weeks helped crystallize the issue,” said Damien Lavera, Schneiderman’s communications director.

I don’t know of any other publications doing investigative work on this issue, so as far as I’m concerned, VentureBeat’s Richard Byrne Reilly deserves a lot of the credit for helping draw attention to the sale of guns on Facebook. Check out Reilly in the video from San Francisco’s KRON 4 TV channel below.

But what’s notable about Facebook’s new policy is that it isn’t actually all that new: Facebook has always prohibited paid advertisements for guns, and it has always allowed individuals to advertise guns for sale through Facebook pages and groups. That hasn’t changed.

What is new is that Facebook is taking a few steps to ensure that people know that the sale of guns is regulated by federal and state laws and reminding people that they can report violations of the company’s terms of service when they see them. But the fact is, people will continue to offer guns for sale on Facebook — just as they do in other online venues.

And with more than a billion people using Facebook worldwide, it’s a safe bet that gun sales are just one tiny piece of the kinds of commercial activity happening on Facebook. Any time you get people together, they’re going to start exchanging things (or making arrangements to exchange things), and some of those exchanges are going to be disturbing to some people — and may be illegal in some jurisdictions.

Facebook is in a tricky place: It doesn’t want to foster illegal activity, but it doesn’t want to curtail its customers’ sense that it’s an open forum for discussion and expression.

As a result, Facebook’s response is pretty weak.

Facebook crafted its statement in such a way as to make it easy for either side to claim victory.

On the side of restricting gun sales, Moms Demand Action and the New York attorney general seemed pleased with the outcome.

“Happily, there are companies out there listening. There’s still much more that needs to be done to keep guns out of dangerous hands,” Moms Demand Action founder Shannon Watts said.

“Facebook has taken real, concrete steps to stop illegal gun sales on their site,” Schneiderman said.

On the side of unfettered gun sales, the NRA also sees today’s news announcement as a win.

“The NRA enjoys 150 times more support on Facebook than Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns. That’s why Bloomberg and the gun control groups he funds tried to pressure Facebook into shutting down discussion of Second Amendment issues on its social media platforms,” the NRA wrote in its response to Facebook’s policy. “Bloomberg failed.”

(The NRA is right about that “150 times” figure. National Rifle Association: 3 million likes. Mayors Against Illegal Guns: 20,000 likes. But, the MAIG-sponsored page “Demand Action to End Gun Violence” has 270,000 likes, so maybe the figure is more like 11x than 150x.)

Another organization devoted to stopping gun violence, the Brady Campaign, found itself in rare agreement with the NRA on that point.

“This new policy is not a victory because Facebook continues to makes it too easy for dangerous people to evade a background check when buying guns,” the Brady Campaign wrote, pointing out that all Facebook planned to do was issue a “mere warning” to would-be gun sellers.

The ambiguity of Facebook’s response reflects the social media company’s uncomfortable position as a platform representing more than a billion people. You can’t take a stand one way or another without pissing somebody off.

Or, as Facebook’s Monika Bickert wrote, “We work hard to find a balance between enabling people to express themselves about topics that are important to them and creating an environment that is safe and respectful.”

Further on in her statement, she wrote, “While we’ve recently heard specific concerns from people about offers for the private sales of firearms, this is one of many areas where we face a difficult challenge balancing individuals’ desire to express themselves on our services and recognizing that this speech may have consequences elsewhere.”

In other words, Facebook needs to take action to avoid liability for facilitating illegal gun sales, even though those transactions aren’t completed on Facebook.

By the same token, the social network might face unwanted legal liability if it turned out that prostitutes were using Facebook pages to solicit business. Even though the actual prostitution takes place in an, erm, “offline” manner, Facebook would naturally want to distance itself from any such activity.

Now, Facebook would be perfectly within its rights to limit certain kinds of speech or commercial activity on its site. Craigslist, Google, eBay, and Amazon all place stringent limits on what you can offer for sale on their sites, and all of them prohibit the sale of guns. Facebook could do the same.

But it won’t. Facebook depends on maintaining the appearance of openness and freedom of expression. And it certainly doesn’t want to cross the powerful NRA lobby, especially when that organization has 150 times more “likes” than Bloomberg’s group. You only have to read the hundreds of comments on VentureBeat’s stories about Facebook’s gun policies to realize that there is a large and vocal community of people who feel strongly about their right to advertise guns for sale on Facebook groups. If Facebook made the wrong move, maybe those people would go to another social network.

Clearly, the world has room for social networks that allow free discussion of gun sales as well as those that don’t. People should feel free to choose whichever social network that has policies they feel comfortable with.

But Facebook should be consistent: If it has a policy against paid gun advertisements, why does it allow community posts offering guns for sale, which are in every way advertisements — except for the fact that they are unpaid?

And since it did have a policy against soliciting illegal gun sales (for instance, offering to sell weapons without ID checks or across state lines), why did it take a major push from activist groups and DAs to get it to enforce that policy?

Facebook has taken a step in the right direction today, by taking its own policies around online gun sales more seriously and by promising to help enforce them. But it’s only a step. The company’s fundamental ambivalence over gun sales still remains.


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