A Facebook logo at the Global Mobile Internet Conference in Beijing in April 2018.
Photo: Mark Schiefelbein (AP)

Facebook is suing four companies and three individuals based in China it alleges have been creating and “promoting the sale of fake accounts, likes and followers” on Facebook and its subsidiary Instagram, as well as other social media sites, the company announced on Friday. In addition to the alleged efforts to create fraudulent accounts, Facebook said the companies infringed on its trademarks and engaged in domain squatting.

According to the lawsuit in U.S. federal court, which was linked to by TechCrunch, the named companies are Xiu Network Science and Technology Company, Xiu Feishu Science and Technology Company, Xiufei Book Technology Co., and Home Network (Fujian) Technology Co., Ltd. Facebook is asking for an immediate cessation to those companies’ sale of inauthentic accounts, as well as $100,000 in damages for each of six websites operated by them and any profits derived from the scheme.

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Bloomberg wrote Facebook wrote in the complaint that the companies in question also produce hardware and software, as well as have interests in online advertising:

The companies named as defendants—9 Xiu Shenzhen, 9 Xiu Feishu, 9 Xiufei and Home Network—are based in Longyan and Shenzhen. They are affiliated manufacturers of electronics and hardware, as well as providers of software and online advertising services, according to the complaint.

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Facebook is currently blocked by state censors in China (and it even failed to open a startup incubator there last year). Meanwhile, the state has stepped up its efforts to prevent access to censored content created outside the country. Companies have historically had more leeway to operate their own virtual private networks (VPNs) capable of bypassing blocklists, but reports have indicated that businesses are also being increasingly impacted by stricter enforcement.

It’s unclear just how big the fake account network was, though Facebook accused the companies of selling them in bulk, and as TechCrunch noted, it’s likely that the operation would have to be fairly significant to attract a crackdown. Facebook and Instagram have previously claimed to have deleted over 2.1 billion fake profiles from January to September 2018, Bloomberg noted, and often tout their efforts to take down automated bot and sock-puppet networks.

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Other attempts to fight companies that profit from the sale of inauthentic social media accounts—which remain rampant, as do networks of hoax and junk news sites—have recently been launched stateside. Earlier this year, the New York attorney general’s office announced a settlement with U.S. company Devumi LLC, which a 2018 New York Times profile revealed had been selling fake followers and engagement to a massive list of celebrities and other online “influencers.” The attorney general’s office declared that settlement to be “the first finding by a law enforcement agency that selling fake social media engagement and using stolen identities to engage in online activity is illegal,” and specifically violating statutes on fraud, false advertising, and trade deception.

“We’re also enforcing our rights under US intellectual property law for their illegal use of our trademarks and brand,” Facebook wrote in the lawsuit. “By filing the lawsuit, we hope to reinforce that this kind of fraudulent activity is not tolerated—and that we’ll act forcefully to protect the integrity of our platform.”

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[TechCrunch/Bloomberg]