Thursday, March 06, 2014

The Problem with Facebook and Gun Sales...

Here's a case where we can see the "code is law" principle play out right before our eyes.  After coming under scrutiny in recent weeks by a variety of pro-gun-control advocacy groups, Facebook decided yesterday to voluntarily place new restrictions on the selling of guns through its website.

To understand the scrutiny, consider that last week VentureBeat reported that it arranged to buy a gun illegally on Facebook in 15 minutes.  Also, the Wall Street Journal reported that both assault-weapons parts and concealed-carry weapon holsters have been advertised to teenagers on the site.  Additionally, Facebook "community" pages such as one called Guns for Sale with over 213,000 "likes", have been freely available to minors of all ages as well.

Specifically, Facebook has announced that they will begin to...

  1. Remove offers to sell guns without background checks or across state lines illegally.
  2. Restrict minors from viewing pages that sell guns.
  3. Delete any posts that seek to circumvent gun laws.
  4. Inform potential sellers that private sales could be regulated or prohibited where they live.
All of which seems well and good.  Even gun rights advocates shouldn't have too much of a problem with these measures considering that their intent is not ban gun sales on Facebook but rather to better enforce existing laws (which is an argument they commonly make themselves).

But here's the rub.  There's the little detail in the Facebook press release about how the company will rely on users to report posts and pages offering to sell guns.  

So let's be clear.  With the announcement of these measures, Facebook is pursuing a policy of reacting to illegal gun sales on its site, but will not be proactive in preventing them.

The reason has to do with, what The Nerfherder has previously dubbed, The Politics of the Algorithm.  Any advertisements Facebook displays on an individual's feed is not decided upon by human decision-makers, but by a mathematical algorithm.  As a result, a 15 year old from Kentucky might be shown an advertisement selling guns from someone in Ohio based on whether or not the algorithm determines he might be interested in it - regardless of the fact that it is illegal according to federal law to 1) sell guns to a minor, and 2) sell guns across state lines without a dealer license.

This actually happened last month.  The 15-year-old was later caught with the loaded handgun at his high school football game, and the seller has since been charged.

Facebook wants to address such safety concerns and, of course, limit its legal liability.  And (not to pick on them too harshly) these measures are at least a step in the right direction.  The problem is that it's practically impossible to truly regulate online content in accordance with the law when humans have been removed from the equation.  Such concerns are an inevitable consequence of social media's dependence upon algorithms - all of which, as this case illustrates, are both flawed and modifiable.



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