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Facebook's Ban on the Sale of Antiquities

Sept. 10, 2020
By: Lois E. Wetzel


Earlier this summer, Facebook announced a new policy prohibiting transactions in historical artifacts on the platform. Facebook’s prohibition, announced June 23, 2020, is directed towards the “exchange, sale or purchase of all historical artifacts” on the site and the updated community standards now includes a ban on “content that attempts to buy, sell, trade, donate, gift or solicit historical artifacts.” The efficacy of the updated policy remain to be seen.

The prohibition came in response to research advanced by archaeologists and terrorism experts that demonstrate the lucrative vehicle Facebook has become for looting networks operating in the illegal trade in Middle Eastern antiquities. Research published by the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research Project (ATHAR, which is also the Arabic word for antiquities), which undertook a 10-month study to monitor looting networks on Facebook, documents the crucial role Facebook has played in the illegal antiquities trade and details how the tech platform’s tools have further enabled the rise of an even more sophisticated black market.

While Facebook has been largely successful in efforts to regulate transactions related to other illicit material, like guns and drugs, and has long espoused a policy that prohibits the sale of stolen artifacts, Facebook has been reticent to go further in regulating the antiquities trade on the site. However, trafficking in antiquities is widely cited as one of the world’s most profitable illegal trades (below arms and drugs) and presents complex questions in its regulation. Regulating arms, weapons, and drugs is relatively straightforward because the illicit nature of the objects is apparent. In contrast, antiquities are complicated by the fact that their illegality is often not obvious, or consistent across jurisdictions. As one archaeologist has described it, “[t]rafficking in antiquities blurs the lines between illegal and legal markets and between criminal and legitimate participants.” In its updated policy, Facebook acknowledges the complexity of the trade in antiquities, saying that it has been slow to prohibit all transactions related to such artifacts because they “can be sold and acquired legally across various jurisdictions.” Facebook rationalized the recently amended policy then on the recognition that the sale of historical artifacts can result in harmful behavior, i.e. terrorism financing and money laundering.

Groups like ATHAR welcome Facebook’s new policy and prohibition, describing the amendment as evidence that the tech giant is concerned about the destruction of priceless cultural heritage . However, there is still doubt over whether Facebook will enforce the new prohibition in a way that gives it any teeth. The doubt primarily exists because Facebook enforces its ban on certain content only after users complain or otherwise bring their attention to such content. Further, many entities are also concerned that by simply deleting content that violates the new prohibition and not preserving it, Facebook will destroy some of the only evidence of these objects’ existence.

While there are still questions related to how Facebook’s new policy will be enforced, the prohibition is clear in that all transactions occurring on Facebook in regard to historical artifacts are banned. Thus, those participating in Facebook’s ever-expanding marketplace should note that any such transaction is subject to increased scrutiny and buyers, as always, should be aware!

Should you have any questions about Facebook’s prohibition on the sale of antiquities or the trade in antiquities in general, do not hesitate to contact an attorney at Barnes, Richardson & Colburn, LLP.