A clickSnapchat-owned Snapchat and its role in the fentanyl crisis was the focus of a House roundtable hosted by the Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday that could spark new proposals to protect children online or curb of liability protection for online platforms.
The roundtable included the mother of a child who died after taking a drug containing fentanyl that was allegedly purchased over Snapchat, apparently believing it to be a prescription pain reliever. It also includes two attorneys who are suing tech companies, as well as a Washington state sheriff who has investigated fentanyl-related deaths.
Witnesses testified at Wednesday’s hearing that Snap’s popular photo and text messaging app, known for its disappearing messages, was uniquely designed in a way that attracted drug transactions.
“Big Tech has a lot of problems,” said Kari Goldberg, a lawyer who works on cases seeking to hold tech platforms responsible for often offline harms. “But deadly fentanyl sales are not a common Big Tech problem. This is a Snap specific issue. Snap’s product is designed specifically to attract both children and adult illegal activities.”
Goldberg expressed concern about Snapchat’s disappearing messages, anonymity and real-time mapping features that users must turn on for their friends to see their location.
Bloomberg reported Wednesday that the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice are also investigating Snap’s role in the fentanyl sales. The DOJ and FBI declined to comment.
Lawmakers are also concerned about other platforms such as Facebook Messenger. “It’s not just Snapchat,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla. “It’s all this social media.” Bilirakis pointed to two examples of someone buying a fentanyl drug through Facebook Messenger, for example.
Meta declined to comment on the specific remarks, but a spokesperson said it prohibits attempts to buy, sell or trade drugs on its services.
The Energy and Commerce Committee, now led by Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rogers, D-Washington, votes on legislation on a variety of topics, including privacy, consumer protection, content moderation and health.
McMorris Rogers has indicated that under her leadership, the panel will seek to significantly narrow liability protections for technology platforms, which advocates on the panel suggest should be done in wrongful-death lawsuits.
A document from last year, outlining Republican priorities for the commission, suggested they should “reject 230,” the law that shields platforms from liability for their users’ posts, and start over to create what they see as more a somewhat politically biased standard. McMorris Rodgers has also expressed an interest in researching the impact of technology on children’s health, including mental health, in the past.
A Snap spokesperson said the company is “committed to doing our part in fighting the national fentanyl poisoning crisis, which includes using cutting-edge technology to help us proactively find and close the accounts of drug dealers.”
The company is blocking search results for drug-related terms and redirecting users to expert resources about the risks of fentanyl, the spokesperson added. The company said it has made improvements to parental controls and machine learning to proactively catch illegal sales, and has made it harder for adults to find teens to hook up with unless they have a few friends in common. It said that of drug-related user reports, those specifically about selling drugs fell from about 23% in September 2021 to about 3% in December 2022.
“We are continuously expanding our support for law enforcement investigations, helping them bring dealers to justice, and working closely with experts to share patterns of dealer activity across platforms to more quickly identify and stop illegal behavior said the spokesperson. “We will continue to do everything we can to address this epidemic, including by working with other technology companies, public health agencies, law enforcement, families and nonprofits.”
Laura Marquez-Garrett, an attorney with the Social Media Victims Law Center, disputed some of Snap’s claims, saying that despite what the company said, many of the children who died from fentanyl overdoses were not actively seeking medication and the company did not is enough data retained for law enforcement to use in such investigations.
Goldberg called Section 230 the “major hurdle” in holding tech companies accountable for harming their users. That’s because it doesn’t incentivize safety features, she said, and it also prevents technology platforms from reaching the discovery stage in many cases, which could otherwise reveal insider information.
Spokane County Sheriff John Knowles said his office is investing heavily in technical expertise to help investigate fentanyl transactions, including other encrypted services. He added that dealers will often have profiles on other platforms as well, but will direct users to their Snapchat accounts from there. He said this is “short-lived” once dealers realize other platforms are cooperating with law enforcement.
Knowles said the lack of laws on how tech services must store information and pass it on to law enforcement, as well as end-to-end encryption, which cloaks messages except between users talking to each other, makes it harder for investigators trace back the source of the illegal drug deals. But legislation that weakens encryption for law enforcement investigations would also likely run counter to the commission’s other goal of increasing digital privacy protections.
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