Politics

Facebook to Congress: We’re (still) trying to eliminate gun sales

Facebook responds to questions from 13 senators prompted by a Protocol investigation. But key questions remain unanswered.

Facebook to Congress: We’re (still) trying to eliminate gun sales

Facebook told a group of U.S. senators that its years-long battle to eliminate peer-to-peer gun sales across its platforms "is not done" and that it will "continue to strengthen" enforcement. The 13 lawmakers had publicly sent the questions to Facebook following a Protocol investigation in February, which found that private groups on the website remain a popular place to buy and sell firearms despite Facebook's 2016 ban on gun sales.

Facebook's response, however, leaves many key questions unanswered, including how many gun groups it has removed from the site for violating its policies and how it expects users to report suspected gun sales in closed groups. In the letter, signed by VP of public policy Kevin Martin, Facebook said it did not track how many private groups are suspended for violating its firearms policy, which prohibits the sale or transfer of guns, gun parts, ammunition and 3D-printing files for firearms.


Get what matters in tech, in your inbox every morning. Sign up for Source Code.


Martin said Faceook had "policies in place to protect against repeat offenders and recidivist behavior," but he did not provide details. "While we cannot provide specific details lest bad actors use the information to game the system," he wrote, "Facebook would not allow group administrators to set up a new group similar to a previously removed group."

The back and forth between Facebook and Congress represents the latest in a line of content moderation challenges for the company, underscoring how difficult it is to maintain user privacy and engagement while also banning certain behavior.

It's unclear whether members of Congress will seek further answers from Facebook on how it is working to eliminate gun sales, which have persisted despite numerous attempts to prevent users from using the website to arrange private, unregulated transactions. When Facebook announced its ban on gun sales in January 2016, it effectively took a political stand against the so-called "gun show loophole" that Congress could close by enacting universal background checks.

Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who along with Sen. Ed Markey led the latest letter from concerned senators, voiced his displeasure with Facebook's response. "Facebook's non-answer answer is disappointing, but not surprising. I really hope Facebook can do a better job for the sake of the American people, and use their power to keep users safe, connected and well-informed. That's what we need and deserve, especially in challenging times like the ones we're living with the coronavirus pandemic," Menendez told Protocol.

Protocol sent more than a dozen detailed questions to Facebook seeking to clarify the company's responses. A Facebook spokesperson declined to address any of the questions, saying, "We have no additional comment beyond what is in the letter."

Facebook's approach is similar to how the company has handled inquiries from congresspeople in the past. The latest letter bears striking resemblance to one Facebook sent Sen. Markey in 2016 following criticism in the press over the company's ability to enforce its ban on gun sales. Since then, Facebook has tweaked its AI-based algorithm to automatically detect suspected gun-sale posts numerous times, in part to better detect thinly veiled coded language that's become popular among users.

Common examples include uploading a photo of a gun with the words "Not for sale/Not for trade, just want to discuss" or "PM me to discuss." The approach is meant to shift the conversation to private messaging where, as Protocol demonstrated, users are often eager to discuss terms of a sale or trade.


Get in touch with us: Share information securely with Protocol via encrypted Signal or WhatsApp message, at 415-214-4715 or through our anonymous SecureDrop.


In its letter to Sen. Menendez, Facebook addressed changes in its algorithm generally, saying that its "proactive AI technology is able to detect content that includes images of firearms and signals that indicate an intent to sell (including posting contact information such as phone numbers and usernames for other social media accounts and price information)."

As Facebook continues to try to enforce its ban, at least one group has been removed in recent weeks for violating it. The Virginia Gun Enthusiasts group, which Protocol highlighted as an example of how easily users are able to continue to skirt Facebook's ban, has been shut down. Users who try and access the page instead get a blank screen.

A Facebook spokesperson confirmed the group was removed for violating its policies.

Policy

Google is wooing a coalition of civil rights allies. It’s working.

The tech giant is adept at winning friends even when it’s not trying to immediately influence people.

A map display of Washington lines the floor next to the elevators at the Google office in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

As Google has faced intensifying pressure from policymakers in recent years, it’s founded trade associations, hired a roster of former top government officials and sometimes spent more than $20 million annually on federal lobbying.

But the company has also become famous in Washington for nurturing less clearly mercenary ties. It has long funded the work of laissez-faire economists who now defend it against antitrust charges, for instance. It’s making inroads with traditional business associations that once pummeled it on policy, and also supports think tanks and advocacy groups.

Keep Reading Show less
Ben Brody

Ben Brody (@ BenBrodyDC) is a senior reporter at Protocol focusing on how Congress, courts and agencies affect the online world we live in. He formerly covered tech policy and lobbying (including antitrust, Section 230 and privacy) at Bloomberg News, where he previously reported on the influence industry, government ethics and the 2016 presidential election. Before that, Ben covered business news at CNNMoney and AdAge, and all manner of stories in and around New York. He still loves appearing on the New York news radio he grew up with.

Sustainability. It can be a charged word in the context of blockchain and crypto – whether from outsiders with a limited view of the technology or from insiders using it for competitive advantage. But as a CEO in the industry, I don’t think either of those approaches helps us move forward. We should all be able to agree that using less energy to get a task done is a good thing and that there is room for improvement in the amount of energy that is consumed to power different blockchain technologies.

So, what if we put the enormous industry talent and minds that have created and developed blockchain to the task of building in a more energy-efficient manner? Can we not just solve the issues but also set the standard for other industries to develop technology in a future-proof way?

Keep Reading Show less
Denelle Dixon, CEO of SDF

Denelle Dixon is CEO and Executive Director of the Stellar Development Foundation, a non-profit using blockchain to unlock economic potential by making money more fluid, markets more open, and people more empowered. Previously, Dixon served as COO of Mozilla. Leading the business, revenue and policy teams, she fought for Net Neutrality and consumer privacy protections and was responsible for commercial partnerships. Denelle also served as general counsel and legal advisor in private equity and technology.

Workplace

Everything you need to know about tech layoffs and hiring slowdowns

Will tech companies and startups continue to have layoffs?

It’s not just early-stage startups that are feeling the burn.

Photo: Kirsty O'Connor/PA Images via Getty Images

What goes up must come down.

High-flying startups with record valuations, huge hiring goals and ambitious expansion plans are now announcing hiring slowdowns, freezes and in some cases widespread layoffs. It’s the dot-com bust all over again — this time, without the cute sock puppet and in the midst of a global pandemic we just can’t seem to shake.

Keep Reading Show less
Nat Rubio-Licht

Nat Rubio-Licht is a Los Angeles-based news writer at Protocol. They graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in newspaper and online journalism in May 2020. Prior to joining the team, they worked at the Los Angeles Business Journal as a technology and aerospace reporter.

Entertainment

Sink into ‘Love, Death & Robots’ and more weekend recs

Don’t know what to do this weekend? We’ve got you covered.

Our favorite picks for your weekend pleasure.

Image: A24; 11 bit studios; Getty Images

We could all use a bit of a break. This weekend we’re diving into Netflix’s beautifully animated sci-fi “Love, Death & Robots,” losing ourselves in surreal “Men” and loving Zelda-like Moonlighter.

Keep Reading Show less
Nick Statt

Nick Statt is Protocol's video game reporter. Prior to joining Protocol, he was news editor at The Verge covering the gaming industry, mobile apps and antitrust out of San Francisco, in addition to managing coverage of Silicon Valley tech giants and startups. He now resides in Rochester, New York, home of the garbage plate and, completely coincidentally, the World Video Game Hall of Fame. He can be reached at nstatt@protocol.com.

Workplace

This machine would like to interview you for a job

Companies are embracing automated video interviews to filter through floods of job applicants. But interviews with a computer screen raise big ethical questions and might scare off candidates.

Although automated interview companies claim to reduce bias in hiring, the researchers and advocates who study AI bias are these companies’ most frequent critics.

Photo: Johner Images via Getty Images

Applying for a job these days is starting to feel a lot like online dating. Job-seekers send their resume into portal after portal and a silent abyss waits on the other side.

That abyss is silent for a reason and it has little to do with the still-tight job market or the quality of your particular resume. On the other side of the portal, hiring managers watch the hundreds and even thousands of resumes pile up. It’s an infinite mountain of digital profiles, most of them from people completely unqualified. Going through them all would be a virtually fruitless task.

Keep Reading Show less
Anna Kramer

Anna Kramer is a reporter at Protocol (Twitter: @ anna_c_kramer, email: akramer@protocol.com), where she writes about labor and workplace issues. Prior to joining the team, she covered tech and small business for the San Francisco Chronicle and privacy for Bloomberg Law. She is a recent graduate of Brown University, where she studied International Relations and Arabic and wrote her senior thesis about surveillance tools and technological development in the Middle East.

Latest Stories
Bulletins