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It all started with ivory. Gretchen Peters — a former investigative journalist who had spent years studying how organized crime networks in conflict zones like Afghanistan profited from endless wars — was frustrated by Facebook’s reluctance to tackle the illegal trade in data. wildlife, which was performing in plain sight on its platform. She and a group of fellow online crime researchers decided to do something about it.
The existing legal framework grants technology platforms broad immunity for most content posted by their users. Thus, Peters realized that Facebook had no real incentive to crack down on the vast criminal networks of wildlife dealers who were facilitating the extinction of elephants and rhinos. Peters and his colleagues attempted an unusual legal strategy: In 2017, they filed a confidential complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission, arguing that Facebook, as a publicly traded company, violated federal law by profiting from the trading of wildlife and by not disclosing the extent of this criminal activity to investors. (Peters has since coordinated the filing of six additional chapters to the complaint, each delving deeper into the presence of crime on Facebook. The social media giant did not respond to requests for comment, but Facebook stressed that it puts warns investors against unlawful acts contained in its filings.)
The SEC’s complaint didn’t force Facebook to fix its wildlife issue, but it did draw the attention of nonprofits and academics around the world who were working to combat different areas of organized crime: arms sales, illegal drugs, fake pharmacies, human trafficking. , the timber trade, the sexual exploitation of minors, etc. While these groups tackled seemingly disparate causes, eventually they all faced the same problem. Transnational organized crime operates largely unhindered on social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and YouTube, and existing regulations (notably Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 in the United States, which has global impact) allow tech companies to look the other way.
Contacted for comment, Snapchat and Twitter said the illegal activity violated their guidelines and they were working diligently to remove it through various means. YouTube’s parent company, Google, did not provide a comment, although YouTube also explicitly prohibits illegal activity or content that encourages it.
After meeting with various anti-crime nongovernmental organizations for months, Peters and his counterparts came to the same grim conclusion about the proliferation of international crime on social media. “One day, about six months later, we were like, fuck, we’re going to have to do something about this,” she said, “because nobody else will.”
In late 2018, she launched the Alliance to Counter Crime Online (ACCO), a global but “disjointed” consortium of more than 40 members with a common mission to educate lawmakers and regulators about the unimaginable scale of online crime. online crime. Through congressional testimony, debriefings on crime issues before relevant committees, and outreach to lawmakers in Washington, DC; the EU; Canada; and in Australia, the group is actively trying to push law reform “across the finish line” in a major jurisdictional bargain, which could then spur change globally.
What is the ideal legislative solution? According to Peters, social media companies should be held to a “duty of care” standard, a concept in tort law by which parties can be held liable for negligent behavior. It’s an idea that proponents say is long overdue for online platforms. And lawmakers are finally paying attention, notably in the UK, where the ACCO briefed government workers working on an online safety bill that would impose a duty of care on social media. The bill in its current form has its share of critics, including those who say it is too broad and could stifle legitimate free speech, but it could also mark a critical turning point in the broader discussion of social media responsibilities.
“The argument we’re making is that selling OxyContin tablets on Snapchat or selling a child for sex on Facebook Marketplace is not free speech,” Peters said. “It’s a crime.”