May 16, 2019

Senators Hirono, Menendez Lead Colleagues in Demanding Facebook do More to Block Gun Sales

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Earlier this month, Senators Mazie K. Hirono (D-Hawaii), Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), and eight of their U.S. Senate colleagues sent a letter to Facebook to demand the social media giant do more to block gun sales facilitated on its social media enterprises, Facebook and Instagram. In their letter to Facebook Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg, the Senators asked for clarification and guidance from the company about its gun sales policies and how Facebook polices its own ban on gun sales and holds violators accountable.

“When Facebook and Instagram 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 two 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 and the suspension of accounts in violation of these policies is essential. As reported in Motherboard earlier this month, ‘Some Instagram accounts make clear in their bios and posts that they are interested in selling guns, but direct users away from the app and instead encourage them to use more secure communication methods to carry out a transaction,’” the Senators wrote in their letter.

In their letter, the senators referred to published reports highlighting how some Instagram users are able to bypass certain security features and platform violations. In some instances, users will explicitly state in their profile bios and posts that they are interested in selling guns, but refer their followers to other sites or apps in order to complete the transaction. In several of these cases, users will go unchecked and allowed to continue using the app, despite the clear violation of Instagram’s policies. The Senators also demanded responses to several of their questions into what proactive steps Facebook is taking to ensure the safety of its users and uphold its policy of no gun sales.

In addition to Senators Hirono and Menendez, the letter was cosigned by their colleagues U.S. Senators Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.).

The full text of the letter is available here and below.

Mark Zuckerberg

Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

Facebook, Inc.

1 Hacker Way

Menlo Park, California 94025

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg:

We write to express concern that despite Instagram’s ban of gun sales on its platforms, users are nonetheless able to facilitate firearm transactions by directing potential buyers to other methods of communication. We therefore request information on the steps Facebook is taking to combat gun sales facilitated through Instagram and Facebook’s other platforms.

When Facebook and Instagram 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 two 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 and the suspension of accounts in violation of these policies is essential. As reported in Motherboard earlier this month, “Some Instagram accounts make clear in their bios and posts that they are interested in selling guns, but direct users away from the app and instead encourage them to use more secure communication methods to carry out a transaction.”  Motherboard found one Instagram account that claimed to sell guns and told prospective purchasers to contact them via WhatsApp, Snapchat, or Wickr. Another account told prospective purchasers to use WhatsApp and Wickr. One of these accounts also advertised the sale of illegal drugs.  Instagram shut down both accounts shortly after Motherboard notified Facebook.

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:

  1. On average, how many accounts each month, on both Facebook and Instagram are suspended for violating the gun sale policy?
  2. What measures does Facebook have in place to ensure that if an account is suspended for violating the gun sale policy, that user cannot create another account under a different username?
  3. What proactive measures is Facebook taking to ensure that users are not able to skirt Facebook’s ban on gun sales by referring potential buyers to apps such as WhatsApp, Wickr. or any alternative communication platform?
  4. What policies does Facebook have in place to alert law enforcement to instances of gun trafficking on its platforms?
  5. How does Facebook handle reports from users alerting it to possible instances of gun sales? On average how many instances of gun sales are flagged by other users each month?
  6. Is Facebook working with peer companies to address the issue of private online gun sales?

Thank you in advance for your consideration.

Sincerely,

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