Advocates Call for Prosecution of Facebook for Enabling Online Crime

On February 13, the Alliance to Counter Crime Online (ACCO) published an open letter urging Attorneys General from 48 states to expand antitrust lawsuits against Facebook to address the platform’s role in facilitating online crime. ACCO also provided 48 State Attorneys General with copies of whistleblower complaints filed to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC): the complaints document allegations that Facebook fails to properly police an assortment of illegal activity on its site, including the sale of opioids and the spread of terror and hate content.

ACCO is a network of nonprofits, university professors, and citizen investigators that tracks multiple online crime sectors. ACCO produces investigative reports into online crime, develops tools and strategies to detect online crime, and advocates for lawmakers, regulators, and industry insiders to enact more effective Internet regulation. The open letter is addressed to the Attorneys General of the 48 states currently prosecuting antitrust actions against Facebook.

“Just as State Attorneys General have begun to unravel how powerful tech algorithms stifle competition, it is vital to also grasp how Facebook algorithms spread and amplify serious crime, and the myriad ways the firm profits from victimizing ordinary people,” the letter states.

“If it’s illegal to do it in the brick-and-mortar world, it should be illegal to promote and profit from it in cyberspace,” explained Gretchen Peters, ACCO co-founder, in a press release. “But in the case of illegal opioid mills, counterfeit products of every type, and even online domestic terror like the planning of the Capitol assault, that’s exactly what Facebook is doing.”

“Facebook is a crime scene – and should be investigated and held accountable as such,” added Kathleen Miles, another ACCO co-founder.

The open letter makes specific note of Facebook’s role in spreading the opioid epidemic. According to the letter, “[ACCO] researchers and others have tracked how Facebook’s family of platforms have overtaken the dark web as the premier online source for the illegal drugs driving these overdoses.” ACCO claims that Facebook and Instagram’s predictive search technologies steer users to illegal sites for illicit drugs and even suggest alternate spellings when users search for drugs. In the letter, ACCO states that “Facebook’s recommendation algorithms are far more efficient at spreading drug content than its moderation tools are at sniffing it out.” Meanwhile, “Facebook profits off this illegal activity from the ads for commercial products that appear in the feeds of users who come online in search of illegal ones,” according to the letter.

The letter highlights Facebook’s role in the opioid epidemic because “40 states involved in the antitrust suit are seeing a spike in synthetic opioid overdoses in 2020.” However, the range of online crime which ACCO claims Facebook enables and profits off of is much greater. It includes sex trafficking, wildlife trafficking, hate and terror content, and the sale of stolen antiquities.

In cooperation with ACCO, the National Whistleblower Center (NWC) has been working since 2016 to hold Facebook and other social media companies accountable for unchecked criminal activity on their platforms. The NWC has aided a number of anonymous whistleblowers in filing complaints to the SEC about Facebook’s mishandling of illegal wildlife trafficking, antiquities trafficking, and terror and hate content on its site. 

One of the whistleblower complaints details terror and hate content on Facebook and Facebook’s misleading statements about its handling of the problem. In 2018, Facebook stated to the public that it could block 99% of terrorist content of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and affiliated groups before it was reported by users. However, the whistleblower petition contains an analysis “showing that during a five-month period in late 2018, the percentage of profiles of those who identify themselves as Friends of selected terrorist groups removed by Facebook was less than 30%. Of the profiles of those Friends who displayed symbols of terrorist groups, Facebook removed just 38% during the study period.”

Additionally, the petition claims that Facebook is actively creating new terror content on its site with its auto-generation features. The petition details how Facebook auto-generates Facebook business pages for terrorist organizations listed on self-identified terrorists’ profiles. Facebook also connects users to existing community pages or Facebook groups for terrorist groups. The petition further details that these same problems exist for white supremacy groups and content in the United States.

Each of the whistleblower petitions filed to the SEC claim that Facebook has been misleading about their handling of these issues when making public comments. While Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act largely shields tech companies from liability for behavior on their sites, NWC argues that as a publicly-traded company Facebook is beholden to U.S. securities laws and is violating the laws by making misleading statements to the public. According to the whistleblower petitions, Facebook is both profiting from illegal activity on its site and putting its shareholders at risk by failing to fully disclose the amount of illegal activity the site hosts and promotes.

“The SEC must use its existing authorities to hold Facebook accountable for profiting when its social media platforms are used for illegal purposes,” said Stephen M. Kohn, a partner at the law firm of Kohn, Kohn and Colapinto, Chairman of the Board of the NWC, and chief counsel to ACCO.“Facebook has failed to institute proper internal controls to prevent flagrant violations of law.” 

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