February 27, 2020

Harris, Colleagues Blast Facebook’s Continued Failure to Monitor and Enforce Gun Sales Ban

Senators call on Facebook to close its private group loophole 

WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris (D-CA) on Thursday joined Senators Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Ed Markey (D-MA) and 10 of their Senate colleagues in calling out Facebook for its continued failure to enforce and monitor its own ban on guns sales, pointing to a recent report that shows sellers and buyers have simply moved their transactions to private Facebook groups in order circumvent the social media giant’s own ban. 

“[D]espite Facebook’s ban of gun sales on its platforms, users are nonetheless able to facilitate firearm transactions in private Facebook groups specifically designed to skirt Facebook’s ban on firearm sales,” the senators wrote in a letter to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The senators cited a recent Protocol report detailing Facebook’s failed efforts to track and remove gun sellers who simply move to new private groups when the company shuts them down. The report quotes a former Facebook employee who claims the company sought to get the content down to an “acceptable” level after it recognized it was too difficult to enforce its own gun sales ban due to the “sheer volume” of the content on its platform.

“While we understand that in November 2018 Facebook instituted proactive measures to better identify accounts that violate its gun sale policy, we have concerns that those measures fall short,” the Senators added.

The senators demanded Zuckerberg answer specific questions to how many private group and individual user accounts Facebook suspends each month for violating the firearm sale policy, and what proactive measures it is taking to ensure that users in private groups are not able to skirt Facebook’s ban on gun sales. Additionally, the senators want to know what procedures Facebook has in place to stop permanently suspended users and groups from starting a new group or hop to other platforms like WhatsApp or Snapchat to sell guns, and report instances of gun trafficking to appropriate law enforcement.

Along with Harris, Menendez, and Markey, the letter was also signed by Senators Chris Murphy (D-CT), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Jack Reed (D-RI), Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Patty Murray (D-WA), Dick Durbin (D-IL) Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) and Cory Booker (D-NJ).

The full text of the letter can be found here and below.

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg:

We write to express concern that despite Facebook’s ban of gun sales on its platforms, users are nonetheless able to facilitate firearm transactions in private Facebook groups specifically designed to skirt Facebook’s ban on firearm sales.  In light of troubling reporting, we request information on the steps Facebook is taking to combat gun sales facilitated through private Facebook groups.

When Facebook banned the sales of firearms on its platforms in 2016, your company took a powerful stand against unlicensed gun sales. A 2017 study estimated that 22 percent of firearm owners obtained their most recent firearm without undergoing a background check.  Another study found that the private market for gun sales “has long been recognized as a leading source of guns used in crimes.”  As an industry leader, Facebook “shut down a key avenue that criminals and minors [ ] used to arm themselves and put lives in danger”.  This is exactly the type of common sense gun policy that enjoys broad support with the American public.

Unfortunately, it is not enough to simply ban such sales. Effective monitoring, including the suspension of accounts in violation of these policies, is essential. As reported in Protocol earlier this month, “[w]hile Facebook's policy led to the removal of some high-profile groups that hosted these discussions, many simply moved to unlisted settings that made tracking the behavior more difficult.”  Even more troubling is the assertion from a former Facebook engineer that the “sheer volume of content” made it difficult to enforce the firearm sales ban, and Facebook simply sought to “get [the content] down to a level that was acceptable.” 

While we understand that in November 2018 Facebook instituted proactive measures to better identify accounts that violate its gun sale policy , we have concerns that those measures fall short. Thus, we request answers to the following questions no later than March 12, 2020:

  • On average, how many private group accounts does Facebook suspend each month for violating the firearm sale policy?

  • On average, how many users within private groups does Facebook suspend each month for violating the firearm sale policy?

  • What measures does Facebook have in place to ensure that if it permanently suspends a private group for violating the gun sale policy, users from that group cannot create another private group under a different name?

  • What proactive measures is Facebook taking to ensure that users in private groups are not able to skirt Facebook’s ban on gun sales, including by referring potential buyers to apps such as WhatsApp, Snapchat, Wickr, or any alternative communication platform?

  • What policies does Facebook have in place to alert law enforcement to instances of gun trafficking on its platforms? Specifically, in those states where peer-to-peer sales without a federal firearm licensor are illegal, does Facebook refer such attempted sales to state and local law enforcement?

  • Facebook claims that over 93% of the firearm sales content removed from its platform is done proactively.  Thus Facebook relies on user reports to make up the difference. How does Facebook expect users to report on violations within private groups?

Thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.

Sincerely, 

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