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Facebook Changes Policy to Tighten Regulation of Online Gun Sales

Commentary First Amendment
By Sheri Pan – Edited by Insue Kim Press release by Monika Bickert, Head of Global Policy Management, Facebook Announcement (Mar. 5, 2014) Press release [caption id="attachment_4177" align="alignleft" width="300"] Photo By: mkhmarketing - CC BY 2.0[/caption] Last Wednesday, Facebook issued a press release announcing policy changes aimed at reducing the sale of guns over its social media platforms Facebook and Instagram. Created after consulting with gun-control organizations and New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, the measures respond to concerns over the growing number of guns sold online. The New York Times, Ars Technica, and CNN reported the story. The Verge describes how Instagram users find guns using the photo-sharing application. The National Rifle Association (“NRA”) and Moms Demand Action responded to the announcement. Under the new policy, Facebook will respond to reports of gun-related posts by blocking minors from accessing the posts and by sending private messages to sellers reminding them to comply with firearm regulations and laws. Facebook will require pages "that are primarily used by people to promote the private sale of commonly regulated goods or services" to post a disclaimer reminding members to follow applicable laws. Users entering gun-related searches on Instagram–such as “#forsale” to find photos of guns for sale–will be exposed to “in-app education.” The new procedures only kick in when a user alerts Facebook about a gun-related post. It is unclear whether Facebook plans to expand its policies to include proactive patrol of public posts or private messages. According to the New York Times, the new measures respond to efforts by gun-control groups to reduce the volume of gun sales online. As found in a 2011 investigation by the City of New York, private sellers—40% of the firearm market—are increasingly using online platforms to advertise their weapons. Although federal law does not require private sellers to conduct background checks, it does prohibit them from selling to purchasers whom they know, or should have reason to know, would not pass a background check. According to the 2011 investigation, 62% of online sellers agreed to sell a firearm to someone who admitted that he or she would probably fail a background check. On Facebook pages such as Guns for Sale, it is unclear whether private firearm sellers run background checks on potential purchasers. In at least one post on that page, a seller’s comment indicates that she does not conduct background checks. Although Facebook prohibits businesses from advertising weapons on its website, this is the first time that it has banned private parties from selling guns on it. Other websites, such as Craigslist and eBay, have blanket prohibitions on weapon sales. Despite those policies, Craigslist users still facilitate such sales. The NRA criticized the policy change as a failed attempt to restrict First Amendment free speech rights. But gun-control groups have applauded the policy as a meaningful first step toward achieving online safety. Some gun safety advocacy groups, including Americans for Responsible Solutions, Sandy Hook Promise, Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and Moms Demand Action, worked with Facebook to draft the policy changes. Sheri Pan is a 1L at Harvard Law School interested in the intersection of technology and public interest law.