WASHINGTON — On a June 2020 morning, Amy Neville entered her son’s bedroom to wake him for an orthodontist appointment.
Fourteen-year-old Alex didn’t wake up.
He died of fentanyl poisoning after taking a counterfeit pill he bought from someone he met on Snapchat, Neville told GOP lawmakers Wednesday during a roundtable discussion of the role “Big Tech” plays in the staggering number of fentanyl overdose deaths in the United States, particularly among minors.
“Through this app, Alex was able to overcome the natural limits that keep most kids from the hardest drugs,” the San Diego mother testified. “The natural limits include a supportive family, a good school, a strong community and other safeguards we knew to provide … Social media, however, transcends these natural limits.”
During the three-hour discussion, Republicans on the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee took aim on multiple fronts, including legal immunity granted to technology companies, and the flow of synthetic opioids, like fake pills laced with illicit fentanyl, entering the U.S. at the Southwest border. The event was organized by the Republican majority, and was not a formal congressional hearing.
Drug overdoses top 100,000
Drug overdose deaths reached a grim milestone in November 2021, topping over 100,000 deaths annually. The pace has continued, with synthetic opioids as the main driver of overdose fatalities, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Lawmakers and invited guests, including Neville, criticized technology companies, singling out Snapchat, for allowing illicit drug transactions involving minors to occur over social media platforms and online marketplaces.
“Big tech has many problems, but the lethal fentanyl sales is not a general big tech problem, it’s a Snap-specific problem. Snap’s product is designed specifically to attract both children and illicit adult activity,” said Carrie Goldberg, of the Brooklyn-based law firm C.A. Goldberg PLLC.
The firm filed suit against Snap Inc., in October on behalf of nine families whose children experienced fentanyl poisoning after accessing it via Snapchat, eight of whom died, including Alex Neville.
“… It’s the only app that’s aimed at children where parents cannot see the content, yet Snap still wants parents to be responsible for what their kids do on it,” she continued.
Goldberg highlighted Snapchat’s disappearing message and geo-location features as facets of the app that allow drug dealers to target minors and evade law enforcement.
Not so, said a representative of Snap.
The company says it’s made “significant operational improvements” to detect and remove drug dealers from the platform, and it has added new layers of protection for users ages 13 to 17, including a new parental tool called Family Center, which allows parents to see their teens’ Snapchat content.
“We are committed to doing our part to fight the national fentanyl poisoning crisis, which includes using cutting-edge technology to help us proactively find and shut down drug dealers’ accounts,” a Snap spokesperson said in a statement Wednesday.
“We block search results for drug-related terms, redirecting Snapchatters to resources from experts about the dangers of fentanyl. We continually expand our support for law enforcement investigations, helping them bring dealers to justice, and we work closely with experts to share patterns of dealers’ activities across platforms to more quickly identify and stop illegal behavior. We will continue to do everything we can to tackle this epidemic, including by working with other tech companies, public health agencies, law enforcement, families and nonprofits,” the statement continued.
Continued appeals to Congress
Goldberg previously testified in front of the committee, when Democrats held the reins in December 2021, for a hearing to “hold Big Tech accountable” by amending Section 230.
Section 230, part of U.S. communications law since the mid-1990s, generally shields social media platforms from legal liability for what is posted on their sites by third parties.
Republicans and Democrats alike have pushed, with little success, to amend the law.
Presidents Joe Biden and Donald Trump have both spoken out against the law.
Dozens of legislative proposals to change Section 230 fizzled during the last two sessions of Congress, including legislation spearheaded by then longtime Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman Mike Doyle, who led the Communications and Technology Subcommittee.
Republicans have largely slammed big social media platforms for what they view as unfair content moderation, including banning the profiles of former President Donald Trump. Snapchat banned Trump in January 2021.
Meta, Facebook’s parent company, announced Wednesday it will reinstate the former president’s Facebook and Instagram profiles in the coming weeks following a two-year ban.
Legislation on drug classification
With little agreement on how to regulate content moderation by social media companies, GOP leaders of Energy and Commerce’s Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee on Tuesday reintroduced the HALT Fentanyl Act, which aims for stricter classification of illicit synthetic fentanyl-related substances under the Controlled Substances Act.
Illicit fentanyl that enters the U.S. drug supply is widely manufactured in Mexico using precursor chemicals from Asia. The synthetic opioid is significantly more potent than heroin.
A February 2022 Government Accountability Office report on drug and human trafficking highlighted the use of social media and e-commerce platforms for drug traffickers.
According to a Drug Enforcement Agency analysis last year, six out of 10 fentanyl-laced fake pills contain a lethal dose of the synthetic opioid.
Officials seized 14,700 pounds of illicit fentanyl in 2022, with the vast majority coming into the U.S. via land border crossings, according to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol.
Wednesday’s roundtable, led by Energy and Commerce Committee Chair Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, also featured Laura Marquez-Garrett, attorney with the Social Media Victims Law Center, and Spokane County, Washington, Sheriff John Nowels.