Snapchat’s role in the fentanyl crisis was investigated during the House Roundtable

popOwned 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 pave the way for new proposals to protect children online or limit liability protections for online platforms.

The Round Table featured the mother of a child who died after consuming a drug containing fentanyl allegedly bought via Snapchat, apparently believing it was a prescription painkiller. It also included attorneys litigated such cases against technology companies as well as a sheriff from Washington state who investigated fentanyl deaths.

Witnesses at the hearing on Wednesday testified that Snap’s popular photo and texting app, known for its disappearing messages, was uniquely designed in a way that attracted drug dealers.

“Technology companies face many issues,” said Carrie Goldberg, an attorney who works on cases seeking to hold technology platforms liable for damages that often occur offline. “But deadly fentanyl sales aren’t a general problem for Big Tech. It’s a problem specific to Snap. Snap’s product is specifically designed to appeal to both children and adult illicit activity.”

Goldberg worried about Snapchat messages disappearing, anonymizing, and real-time mapping, which users have to turn on for their friends to see their location.

Bloomberg reported Wednesday that the FBI and the Justice Department are also investigating Snap’s role in fentanyl sales. The Justice Department and the FBI declined to comment.

Lawmakers are also interested in other platforms such as Facebook Messenger. “This isn’t just Snapchat,” said Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla.. “It’s all this social media.” Bilirakis pointed to two examples of someone buying a drug containing fentanyl through Facebook Messenger, for example.

Meta declined to comment on specific statements, but a spokesperson said it prohibits attempts to buy, sell or trade drugs on its services.

The Energy and Commerce Committee, now chaired by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Washington, votes on legislation across topics including privacy, consumer protection, content moderation, and health.

McMorris Rodgers indicated that under her leadership, the commission would seek to significantly narrow liability protections for technology platforms, which advocates on the commission have suggested should be done in the case of wrongful death lawsuits.

A document from last year outlining Republicans’ priorities for the committee suggests they should “Scrap 230,” the law that protects platforms from liability for their users’ posts, and start over to create what they see as a less politically biased standard. McMorris Rodgers has also expressed interest in exploring the effects of technology on children’s health, including mental health, in the past.

A Snap spokesperson said the company is “committed to doing our part to combat the national fentanyl poisoning crisis, which includes using the latest technology to help us proactively find and shut down accounts for drug dealers.”

The spokesperson added that the company is blocking search results for drug-related terms and redirecting users to expert resources about the dangers of fentanyl. The company said it made improvements to parental supervision and machine learning features to proactively catch illegal sales and made it harder for adults to find teens to connect with unless they had many friends in common. Among drug-related reports from users, those relating to drug sales specifically dropped from about 23% in September 2021, to about 3% in December 2022, she said.

“We are constantly expanding our support for law enforcement investigations, helping them bring merchants to justice, and working closely with experts to share patterns of merchants’ activities across platforms to identify and stop illegal behavior faster,” the spokesperson said. “We will continue to do everything we can to respond to this pandemic, including by working with other technology companies, public health agencies, law enforcement, families and nonprofit organizations.”

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 children who died from fentanyl overdoses were not actively seeking drugs and the company did not. Data stored sufficiently for law enforcement to use in such investigations.

Goldberg called Section 230 the “major hurdle” in holding tech companies liable for harm to their users. That’s because it doesn’t incentivize security features, you say, and also prevents technology platforms from reaching the discovery stage in many cases, which can reveal inside 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 merchants often have profiles on other platforms as well, but will direct consumers to their Snapchat accounts from there. He said it is “short-lived” once traders realize other platforms are cooperating with law enforcement.

Nowels said the lack of laws about how tech services keep information and turn it over to law enforcement, plus end-to-end encryption that obscures messages except between users talking to each other, makes it difficult for investigators to trace them. Source support for illegal drug deals. But legislation that weakens encryption for law enforcement investigations is also likely to conflict with the committee’s other goal of increasing digital privacy protections.

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