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

snapSnapchat and its role in the fentanyl crisis were the focus of a House roundtable hosted by the Energy and Trade Committee on Wednesday, setting the stage for new proposals to protect children online or limit liability protections for online platforms could .

Pictured at the round table was the mother of a child who died after taking a drug containing fentanyl said to have been purchased through Snapchat, apparently believing it was a prescription painkiller. It also featured two attorneys handling such cases against tech companies, as well as a Washington state sheriff who has investigated deaths from fentanyl.

Witnesses testified at Wednesday’s hearing that Snap’s popular photo and texting app, known for its disappearing messages, was uniquely designed to attract drug transactions.

“Big tech has a lot of problems,” said Carrie Goldberg, a lawyer who works on cases trying to hold tech platforms accountable for damages often caused offline. “But the deadly fentanyl sales are not a common big tech problem. It’s a Snap specific issue. Snap’s product is specifically designed to attract both children and adult illegal activities.”

Goldberg expressed concern about Snapchat’s disappearing messages, anonymity, and real-time mapping features that require users to enable in order for their friends to see their location.

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

Other platforms such as Facebook Messenger are also causing legislators to worry. “This isn’t just Snapchat,” Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Fla., said. “It’s all this social media.” For example, Bilirakis pointed to two examples where someone bought a fentanyl-fortified drug through Facebook Messenger.

Meta declined to comment on the specific remarks, but a spokesman said it prohibits attempts to buy, sell or trade drugs through its services.

The Energy and Trade Committee, now headed by Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., votes on legislation on issues like privacy, consumer protection, content moderation and health.

McMorris Rodgers has indicated that the panel, under her leadership, will seek to significantly limit liability protections for technology platforms, which panel advocates should propose in the event of wrongful death claims.

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

A Snap spokesperson said the company is “dedicated to doing our part to help address the national fentanyl poisoning crisis, which includes using state-of-the-art technology to help us proactively find and shut down drug dealer accounts.”

The company blocks search results for drug-related terms and redirects users to expert resources about fentanyl risks, the spokesperson added. The company said it made improvements to parental monitoring features and machine learning to proactively uncover illicit sales and made it harder for adults to find teens to connect with unless they have several common friends. It said that of drug-related reports from users, those specifically related to drug sales fell from about 23% in September 2021 to about 3% in December 2022.

“We continue to expand our support for law enforcement investigations, help them bring traders to justice, and we work closely with experts to share patterns of trader activity across platforms to more quickly identify and stop illegal behavior,” said the spokesman. “We will continue to do everything we can to fight this epidemic, including by working with other technology companies, public health officials, law enforcement, families and non-profit organizations.”

Laura Marquez-Garrett, an attorney with the Social Media Victims Law Center, disputed some of Snap’s claims, saying many of the children who died from fentanyl overdoses were not actively seeking drugs, despite statements made by the company and the company insufficiently secured data for law enforcement to use in such investigations.

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

Nowels said the lack of laws about how tech services should retain and share information with law enforcement, as well as end-to-end encryption that obfuscates messages except between users speaking to each other, makes it difficult for investigators to track them trace back the source of illegal drug deals. But legislation that weakens encryption for law enforcement investigations would also likely run counter to the committee’s other goal of improving digital privacy protections.

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