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March 5, 2014

Facebook cracking down on illegal gun sales planned on site

SAN FRANCISCO — Facebook is cracking down on illegal gun sales planned through its website, seeking to prevent criminal activity and setting a precedent other social- media sites could follow.

Facebook will delete posts where users declare a willingness to break the law, such as to sell a gun without a background check or transport it across state lines, the company said Wednesday in a blog post. People who promote private sales of guns - or other regulated goods and services - might get a message from Facebook reminding them to comply with the law, while pages related to such activities will have to include language about the importance of following the law.

The world's largest social network is responding to criticism from advocacy groups, such as Mayors Against Illegal Guns, which have lobbied Facebook for months to regulate users' posts about firearms for sale on their profiles and group pages. While no money changes hands on the site, the groups say it enabled illegal sales by failing to police the conversations that led to them. Facebook said it worked to find a solution that wouldn't limit free expression.

"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," the company said in the post. "We believe these collective efforts represent the right approach in balancing people's desire to express themselves while promoting a safe, responsible community."

To find the offenders, Menlo Park, Calif.-based Facebook will rely on its 1.2 billion members, who can flag a post if they think it violates the policy, which extends to all "commonly regulated" items and services, such as drugs, alcohol and prostitution.

Because transactions don't take place on the network, it will be difficult to track the success of the new effort. Still, the interest groups are marking the policy shift as a victory, said John Feinblatt, chairman of Mayors Against Illegal Guns.

 "Facebook approached this in a problem-solving manner, trying to pinpoint what actually on their site caused potential damage and tried to emphasize the areas we actually agreed on, rather than dwell on what we don't," Feinblatt said. Facebook's actions will "reverberate among its peers in social media," he said.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, co-founder of Mayors Against Illegal Guns, is the majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent of Bloomberg News.

Facebook already prohibits or restricts advertisements about illegal drugs, weapons and other regulated products and services. The company also takes down posts that are violent or illegal. For example, if a user in Germany posted content that denies the Holocaust, which is banned in the country, it would be removed. The company last year also tried to address the issue of hate speech, following complaints the site allowed content that encouraged violence against women.

The new features include age restrictions depending on a country's laws. For example, a flagged post about selling alcohol in the United States would be limited to people over 21 years old.

Facebook is also making changes on Instagram, the photo- sharing network it purchased for about $700 million in 2012. If members search the application for sales or promotions related to firearms, they will receive a message reminding them to follow the law.

Facebook isn't the first company to assess its involvement with guns. General Electric conducted stricter audits of GE Capital's financing of retailers who sell firearms after the murder of 26 people at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in 2012. The new guidelines came as part of a 2008 decision to stop financing to "merchants whose primary business is to sell firearms."

Facebook said it collaborated with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, Americans for Responsible Solutions, Sandy Hook Promise and other gun-safety groups to come up with its plan.

"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," Schneiderman said Wednesday in a statement. He said he will "encourage other social-media sites to follow their lead."

The social network's move is unlikely to have any effect on sales of used guns, because people will find another way to get cash for their firearms, according to Andrea James, an analyst at Dougherty & Co. who follows the industry.

"If Facebook closed down these groups, they would simply move elsewhere," James said.

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