Facebook De-Friends Illegal Gun Sellers

The focus on gun control has prompted some companies in the private sector to address gun violence, and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) has announced that it will enact measures to prevent illegal gun sales, a step other social media sites could follow. The social network is the one of the world’s largest marketplaces for guns, while Craigslist, Google (NASDAQ:GOOG), and eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) have all prohibited unlicensed gun sales.

In a blog post published Wednesday, Facebook introduced what the company’s head of Global Policy Management, Monika Bickert, called a series of new educational and enforcement efforts for people discussing the private sale of regulated items. Facebook already prohibits or restricts advertisements for illegal drugs, tobacco products, prescription pharmaceuticals, weapons, and several other products and services.

Now, Facebook will delete posts that indicate a user is willing to break the law, including selling a gun without a background check. But the efforts will depend on its 1.2 billion users. Anytime a user flags a post promoting the private sale of a commonly regulated item, Facebook will receive a report and send a message to that user “reminding him or her to comply with relevant laws and regulations.”

Facebook pages that are primarily used to promote the private sale of regulated goods or services are now required to remind people of the relevant laws and limit access to people older than 18 if mandated by law.

“Facebook, at its heart, is about helping people connect and communicate. Because of the diversity of people and cultures on our services, we know that people sometimes post or share things that may be controversial or objectionable. 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,” the post noted. “This balance is important to how we view commercial activity on Facebook or Instagram.”

Importantly, Bickert said that just because most of the social network’s sharing tools are free to use and people can use its services “to actually sell things to each other,” that does not mean Facebook cannot take action when some behavior violates its Community Standards. “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,” she concluded.

The social network’s new focus on limiting illegal gun sales follows closely after an investigation by VentureBeat found that children and people without U.S. identification could use Facebook pages to find people who will sell weapons with no questions asked. Additionally, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman wrote Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg a letter last year saying that “a recent review of Facebook found a number of groups in which users promoted the sale of assault rifles, handguns, rifles, shotguns and gun parts.”

Schneiderman also noted that the site enables users to easily circumvent the New York law that requires background checks, as The Guardian reports. He praised Facebook’s decision in a statement issued Wednesday. “Responsible social-media sites know that it is in no one’s interest for their sites to become a 21st-century black market in dangerous and illegal goods that place our families and communities at risk,” the New York attorney general said, adding that he will “encourage other social-media sites to follow their lead.”

Daniel Gross of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence wrote in a statement that “this new policy is not a victory because Facebook continues to make it too easy for dangerous people to evade a background check when buying guns. A mere warning to follow the law and community-based reporting will not do enough to prevent unchecked gun sales to dangerous people.”

The National Rifle Association’s Chris Cox also described the changes as minor. “The NRA enjoys 150 times more support on Facebook than Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns,” he wrote. “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. Bloomberg failed. NRA members and our supporters will continue to have a platform to exercise their First Amendment rights in support of their Second Amendment freedoms.”

Facebook is not the first company to rethink how its business facilitates the sale of weapons. General Electric’s (NYSE:GE) financial arm, GE Capital, now conducts stricter audits of retailers who sell firearms.

Gun control also is back on President Barack Obama’s agenda in 2014. In his 2013 State of the Union address, the president made an impassioned plea for Congress to pursue legislation further restrictions on the sale and possession of firearms.

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