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Unregulated by U.S. at home, Facebook boosts wildlife trafficking abroad

  • The world’s largest social media company, Facebook, regularly connects wildlife traffickers around the world, and advocates are stepping up the pressure to address the problem in the company’s home country.
  • Proposed U.S. legislation targets a decades-old law that protects online companies’ content as free speech on their platform. Advocates say wildlife crime is not speech, and that online companies lack the regulation that other “real-life” companies must follow.
  • Trafficking has increased since Facebook chose to self-regulate in 2019, researchers say. The company could cooperate with law enforcement or conservationists, but it has rarely chosen to do so.
  • Meanwhile, researchers are gathering more and more evidence that wildlife trafficking is one of the biggest threats to global biodiversity.

In a matter of seconds, anyone can find evidence of wildlife trafficking on Facebook, according to independent researchers and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) experts. Even using simple search terms returns thousands of posts that offer wildlife and body parts up for sale. Elephant ivory from Thailand, pangolin scales from Vietnam, and sun bears from Malaysia. Tigers, walrus, tortoises, rhinos, sea turtles and shark fins have all been found for sale on the world’s biggest social media platform, even though it says it has banned the trade on its site.

Patricia Tricorache, an independent wildlife researcher, monitors cheetah cubs appearing on social media every day. From her home in Mexico, she watches online as cheetahs exchange hands, shuffled from their home in the Horn of Africa to collectors’ homes in Saudi Arabia — posted on Facebook and its subsidiary, Instagram.

The animals are likely doomed. Usually, cubs only last among traffickers and buyers for a few months before they die.

But U.S.-headquartered Facebook, Tricorache says, is shielded by U.S. laws designed to protect free speech. As a result, the company, which boasts 2.7 billion global users, has long dodged responsibility for hosting wildlife traffickers — a trade that researchers say has only increased since the company committed to stopping it in 2019.

“Facebook is like the cop that stands outside the house while the house is being robbed,” Tricorache says. “It’s like they’re watching all this happening and saying, ‘well it wasn’t my precinct or I wasn’t on duty,’ like they’re at no fault whatsoever.”

A cheetah for sale on Facebook in 2020.
A cheetah for sale on Facebook in 2020. At least 4,000 cheetahs have been trafficked in the past decade, and there are only 7,000 known cheetahs in the wild. Image from archived investigations by the Center on Illicit Networks and Organized Crime.

The United States lacks legal restrictions to prevent Facebook and other internet companies from hosting illegal activity around the world — and that includes a robust criminal trade in wildlife. Likewise, countries that struggle to rein in trafficking find they have no power to dictate Facebook’s actions, and they are often left to seize trafficked animals only after they’ve been plucked from habitats and transported far away.

Facebook did not respond to emailed questions seeking comment for this article.

A global problem, a U.S. problem, and a Facebook problem

Scientists are increasingly finding more evidence that the wildlife trade is a formidable threat to global biodiversity. Thousands of species and their parts are being sold on the international market as pets, medicines, and fashion accessories collectively worth billions of dollars. While there is little research on the trade’s impact on planetary diversity, a recent study estimated trafficking has contributed to a 60% decline in species abundance.

The largely unregulated internet has made the problem far worse, with online wildlife trafficking escalating during the COVID-19 pandemic as traders shifted from face-to-face interactions to electronic sales.

That’s why a growing consortium of U.S. advocates is encouraging the United States government to act and require that Facebook and other social media companies take meaningful steps to reduce the online trade.

Wallabies, which are not endangered, for sale on Facebook in 2020.
Wallabies, which are not endangered, for sale on Facebook in 2020. Image from archived investigations by the Center on Illicit Networks and Organized Crime.

“We have a huge problem [and t]he pandemic has actually made it worse. Trafficking is a global scourge that is getting worse all the time, and the other thing that is making it worse, quite honestly, is Facebook,” U.S. House Representative Jared Huffman, a Democrat from California, told Mongabay.

In May, House members introduced a bill with some teeth that would work around a key current protection afforded to online companies preventing lawsuits addressing wildlife trafficking and other forms of internet crime. Like other proposed legislation to hold giant politically powerful social media firms accountable for hosting illegal content, the bill may be fighting an uphill battle. Called the Online Consumer Protection Act, it has been introduced in the House in various forms before, and its predecessors frequently came up against online company lobbyists and free speech advocates. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought new awareness to wildlife trafficking and its role in biodiversity declines.

Online free speech vs unregulated criminal trade

The OCPA, if voted into law, would establish a “duty of care” principle, says Gretchen Peters, executive director of the Alliance to Counter Crime Online (ACCO).

That principle would require that online companies, as with other types of firms such as hotels, create their own set of guidelines, which would then be approved by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). According to the bill, social media companies would not be expected to cleanse all criminal activity, such as wildlife crime, from their platforms, although that is an end goal. Instead, the companies must ensure that they’re doing all they can to rid their platforms of illicit activity.

So far, no U.S. laws have yet passed requiring social media companies to establish duty of care policies, leaving the companies almost entirely in control of regulating themselves.

Under the proposed OCPA, if platforms did not uphold FTC approved policies, they would lose their currently granted “liability shield.” That shield is provided by Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which protects online companies from liability for content posted on their platforms. Section 230 has primarily been interpreted as a free speech protection, ensuring platforms aren’t targeted for allowing controversial speech. Peters, however, says Section 230 has also been broadly used to offer blanket protections for anything that happens on platforms — including criminal activity.

“When you’re selling baby chimps online, that doesn’t magically become free expression because it happens on Facebook. It’s still a crime. It’s still commerce. It’s conduct, not speech,” she contends.

Key to Peters’ argument concerning the legal responsibilities of social media companies is that Facebook and other social media firms are not just facilitating the illegal wildlife trade, but encouraging it. A phone service provider, in contrast, shouldn’t be prosecuted for enabling an unlawful trade in rhino horns, she says, because the phone carrier is playing no role in the sales conversation. Facebook, however, is playing a participative role.

“Their algorithms are amplifying and spreading content. They’re connecting people, so they’re much more like a publisher than somebody who is providing an email or telephone service,” she says.

The ACCO determined in a 2020 study that almost a third of the wildlife pages researchers discovered were suggested to them through Facebook’s “Related Pages” feature.

Elephant ivory for sale on Facebook in 2017.
Elephant ivory for sale on Facebook in 2017. The ivory trade flows almost everywhere in the world, but Japan’s open domestic market continues to drive poaching. Image from archived investigations by the Center on Illicit Networks and Organized Crime.
Ivory for sale on Facebook
Ivory for sale on Facebook in 2017 (left and center) and 2020. Even using simple search terms returns thousands of posts that offer wildlife and body parts up for sale. Images (left and center) from archived investigations by the Center on Illicit Networks and Organized Crime.

The ACCO isn’t advocating for the removal of Section 230 (something Donald Trump pushed hard for during his presidency to pressure social media firms promoting speech he labeled as “fake news”). Rather, the ACCO wants an amendment clarifying that crime is not speech. Without Section 230’s blanket protection, tech firms could be sued by victims for allowing criminal behavior.

“What we’re fighting for is a fairly simple principle, which is that if it’s illegal in real life, it should be illegal to host it online,” Peters says. Such principles, she adds, would encapsulate all types of unlawful behavior online, including human trafficking and the illegal drug trade, and tackle all these issues together more efficiently than tackling each individually.

While continuing to lobby for the OCPA to become law, campaigners are also urging that existing regulations be used to curb the online wildlife trade, which includes existing rules protecting shareholders from crimes committed by public companies. Peters partnered with Facebook whistleblowers in 2019 to file a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), arguing that Facebook had not warned investors that it was exposing them to illegal activity, including wildlife trafficking. The status of that filing, if it was ever taken up by the SEC, is unknown.

Facebook and internet sector actions so far

Facebook in 2019 introduced policies to ban the trade in illegal wildlife on its platform, but researchers say the trade continues as if nothing changed. The company explicitly prohibits the trade in illegal wildlife listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a 1975 international agreement to stem trafficking.

Also, in 2018 the company joined with other social media companies in the Coalition to End Wildlife Trafficking Online, which aims to remove 80% of wildlife trafficking from participant platforms by 2020. While other companies made progress, Facebook’s main action was to create a tool for users to report such activity. The ACCO says illegal wildlife activity on Facebook has actually increased since 2018.

“Many companies, Facebook included, have instituted policies to try to limit the role their sites play, but it’s been clearly inadequate thus far,” says Taylor Tench, a policy analyst with the Environmental Investigation Agency U.S.

Anti-trafficking workshops have been held by Interpol to generate a better understanding of CITES. Tricorache attended one of these workshops, where she met Facebook representatives. She rarely reports online accounts for illegal activity, but after that meeting she discovered a potential cheetah trafficker in Mexico. She reported the page and emailed her new Facebook contact directly about it; nothing happened.

“That Mexican [case] is the one that really makes me angry, because it was so clear and I reported it to the [Facebook] guy [whom] I met face to face,” Tricorache recalls.

That’s not to say that Facebook hasn’t acted. Over the years, the online service has removed many accounts related to wildlife trafficking, “but that tells you the amount of ads out there,” Tricorache says. Researchers say most pages that are removed are in English, but much of the trade happens in other languages, where page moderation is sporadic.

A cheetah for sale on Instagram. Tricorache says purchasers usually don't know how to take care of cheetahs but buy them to show them off on social media.
Cheetahs for sale on Instagram in 2017. Tricorache says purchasers usually don’t know how to take care of cheetahs but buy them to show them off on social media. Images courtesy of Patricia Tricorache.
A cheetah for sale on Snapchat in March 2021. Cheetah cubs rarely live longer than a year after they are trafficked.
Cheetah for sale on Snapchat in March 2021 (left) and in 2017 (right). Cheetah cubs rarely live longer than a year after they are trafficked. Images courtesy of Patricia Tricorache.

Facebook also has the ability to collaborate with law enforcement on wildlife trafficking, but rarely opts for that opportunity. Stephen Guertin, the USFWS deputy director for policy, speaking at an April congressional hearing, said that most criminal investigations undertaken by the service involve some role by social media activity facilitating the trade.

However, USFWS has trouble fully investigating such crimes, or even measuring how widespread or profitable the trade is, because Facebook does not voluntarily cooperate, but rather waits for a lengthy legal process to unfold. That’s because the federal agency doesn’t have the power to subpoena Facebook for information related to possible criminal activity.

“Certainly if we had that administrative subpoena authority, we would save several hours or days with our ability to look into some of these emerging cases, as we try to build evidence against some of the criminal organizations. So that authority would be much more empowering to us to move more quickly in this very fast-moving global wildlife trafficking arena,” Guertin said in the hearing. It isn’t known publicly how much Facebook profits from wildlife trade ads.

Other online companies have been more willing to collaborate with law enforcement. eBay, for example, has a longtime relationship with USFWS detective departments. As a result, Guertin says, eBay has seen a dramatic reduction in wildlife posts.

Companies can also play a significant role in moderating their own platform, including offering educational tools to users. Facebook last year began including a wildlife protection warning when users searched terms relevant to wildlife.

A worldwide problem requiring global cooperation

Facebook is based in the U.S., but users wanting to trade wildlife can choose among a host of social media platforms based around the globe. As a result, strong moderation by one internet company in one nation can result in a whack-a-mole situation in which new platforms located elsewhere fill in the gaps.

“Focusing on the companies I think is important, but I also think it’s important that the companies are taking action as a sector,” Tench says. “If one company has really strong policies regarding preventing the trade in wildlife, it wouldn’t be that hard for traders to simply switch platforms.”

But that cooperation isn’t always forthcoming. When Huffman chaired a hearing for the Oceans, Water and Wildlife subcommittee of the Committee on Natural Resources in the U.S. House, Facebook didn’t respond to requests to attend and testify. He said that requests were treated as if the government were a customer wanting technical support.

“Everybody is at wit’s end dealing with these social media companies. They are so unaccountable and so inaccessible really,” he said. “They’ve had a free pass for a long time, and it is past due to put them on par with other appropriately regulated industries.”

An emerald swift lizard for sale on Facebook in 2020. Image from archived investigations by the Center on Illicit Networks and Organized Crime.

Online environmental crime out of control

Internet marketplaces have long been popular with wildlife traders and buyers, but funding to address wildlife trafficking hasn’t kept pace. Similarly, Facebook, as recently as March 2021, was tied to land deals resulting in deforestation and land grabbing in the Brazilian Amazon.

“Despite the fact that from our assessment, the vast majority of the wildlife trade globally has moved online, the vast majority of the resources that are being spent by conservation groups to protect animals are still being spent on the field,” Peters says.

Field spending is necessary, she agrees, but there is a lot of potential to address the same problems in online realms, as demonstrated by Brazil’s National Network Combating Wild Animal Trafficking (RENCTAS), an award-winning, crimefighting NGO founded in 1999. RENCTAS tracks the global illegal wildlife trade on social media, especially the sourcing of animals in the Brazilian Amazon rainforest and Cerrado savanna biomes, and then turns over the information to law enforcement.

One hurdle yet to be leaped: conservation grant givers have often shown skepticism over whether anti-trafficking efforts can be effective online, making online investigations difficult to fund. Peters, for example, has had to bootstrap social media projects onto funding for other wildlife trafficking research.

Campaigners say that some of those funding issues could be solved if online firms would collaborate with conservationists in identifying problematic accounts. More than 37,000 species of plants and animals are protected under CITES, and online companies likely do not have the expertise or capacity to cross-reference posts with known protected species. But independent conservation groups could, for example, be contracted or consulted when possible trafficking incidents are found.

“People intuitively like to fight a crime problem where they can see it, and the world of online crime for most has been invisible for a long time, so it’s just starting to get recognition,” Peters says.

Banner image of cheetahs by jeaneeem via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

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