Tie upSnapchat-owned Snapchat and its role in the fentanyl crisis were the focus of a House roundtable hosted by the Energy and Commerce Committee on Wednesday, which could pave the way for new proposals to protect children online or limit liability protections for online platforms.
The roundtable included the mother of a child who died after taking a fentanyl-laced drug allegedly purchased via Snapchat, apparently mistaking it for a prescription painkiller. It also featured two lawyers leading lawsuits against tech companies, as well as a Washington state sheriff investigating fentanyl-related deaths.
In a hearing Wednesday, witnesses said the popular photo and text messaging app Snap, known for its disappearing messages, was designed to attract drug transactions.
“Big tech has a lot of problems,” said Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer who works on cases to hold tech platforms liable for frequent offline damages. “But deadly sales of fentanyl are not a common Big Tech problem. This is a problem specific to Snap. Snap’s product is designed specifically to engage 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 so their friends can see their location.
Bloomberg reported Wednesday that the FBI and Justice Department are also investigating Snap’s role in the sale of fentanyl. The Justice Department declined to comment, and the FBI did not immediately respond.
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 fentanyl drugs through Facebook Messenger, for example.
A Facebook representative was not immediately available for comment.
The Energy and Commerce Committee, now chaired by Rep. Kathy McMorris Rogers, D-Washington, votes on legislation on a variety of topics, including privacy, consumer protection, content moderation and health.
McMorris Rogers said that under her leadership, the commission would seek to significantly narrow liability protections for technology platforms, which the group’s advocates say should be done in wrongful-death lawsuits.
Last year’s document outlining Republican priorities for the committee proposed “repealing 230,” the law that shields platforms from liability for their users’ messages, and starting over to create what they say is a less politically biased standard. In the past, McMorris Rogers has also expressed an interest in studying the impact of technology on children’s health, including mental health.
A spokesperson for Snap said the company is “committed to contributing to the fight against the national fentanyl poisoning crisis, which includes using advanced technology to help us proactively find and shut down the accounts of drug dealers.”
The company blocks search results for drug-related terms and redirects users to expert resources about the risks of fentanyl, the spokesperson added. The company said it made improvements to parental controls and machine learning to proactively detect illegal sales, and made it harder for adults to find teenagers to hook up with unless they have a few friends in common. Among drug-related consumer reports, those involving drug sales fell from about 23% in September 2021 to about 3% in December 2022, it said.
“We’re constantly expanding our support for law enforcement investigations, helping them bring dealers to justice, and we’re working closely with experts to share patterns of dealer activity across platforms to more quickly identify and stop illegal behavior,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to do everything we can to fight this epidemic, including by working with other technology companies, public health authorities, law enforcement agencies, families and nonprofit organizations.”
Laura Marquez-Garrett, a lawyer at the Social Media Victims’ Law Center, disputed some of Snap’s claims, saying that despite the company’s claims, many of the children who died of fentanyl overdoses were not actively seeking the drug and the company did not take adequate precautions. data for use by law enforcement agencies in such investigations.
Goldberg called Section 230 a “major obstacle” to holding tech companies accountable for harm caused to their users. That’s because it doesn’t incentivize security features, she said, and it also prevents technology platforms from reaching the disclosure stage in many cases that might otherwise reveal internal information.
Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels said his office is investing heavily in technical expertise to help investigate fentanyl transactions, including on other encrypted services. He added that dealers also often have profiles on other platforms, but will direct consumers to their Snapchat accounts from there. He said it’s “not long” for dealers to realize that other platforms are cooperating with law enforcement.
Novels said the lack of laws on how tech services must store information and share it with law enforcement, as well as end-to-end encryption that hides messages except for messages between users talking to each other, makes it difficult for investigators to trace back to the source of the illegal transactions. with drugs. But legislation that weakens encryption for law enforcement investigations is also likely to run counter to the committee’s other goal of increasing digital privacy protections.
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