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Social media platforms face pressure to stop online drug dealers who target kids

Critics say Snap, the maker of Snapchat, needs to do more to stop on-line drug dealers.  The company told NPR it's improving safety measures and working with law enforcement.
Richard Drew
Critics say Snap, the maker of Snapchat, needs to do more to stop on-line drug dealers. The company told NPR it's improving safety measures and working with law enforcement.

Three years ago Amy Neville went to her son Alex's bedroom and found the 14-year-old lying dead on a bean bag chair. He had overdosed — Neville describes it as a "poisoning" — on fentanyl.

"An amazing child who could do anything he set his mind to was gone," Neville testified Wednesday before a House panel in Washington, D.C.

According to Neville, her son began experimenting with illicit opioids and other drugs while using the social media site Snapchat.

"It was on Snapchat that Alex was able to visit with dealers and other users. It was on Snapchat that he set up a deal to get pills," she said.

The dealer who sold fentanyl to Alex was never caught or prosecuted. Snapchat hasn't acknowledged any role in his death.

During testimony Wednesday, Neville said social media companies aren't being held accountable for putting children like Alex in danger.

She and other witnesses called for changes to a provision of federal law known as Section 230.

Would it help to open Big Tech to more lawsuits?

Section 230 shields social media companies from most civil lawsuits linked to content on their platforms created by users — including users engaged in criminal activity.

"The question isn't whether tech is completely responsible for illicit drug sales," said Rep. Kelly Armstrong, a Republican from North Dakota. "They aren't."

But Armstrong joined a chorus of lawmakers who say it's time for the law to be reformed.

"The question is what duty we should impose on those [social media] platforms to mitigate illegal illicit drug sales. The answer can no longer be 230's near total immunity."

Supporters of Section 230 argue it has allowed tech companies to open platforms to a wide array of speech. They fear changes could lead to a flood of lawsuits, forcing companies to curb controversial topics.

But critics at Wednesday's hearing said immunity from civil lawsuits has allowed social media companies to focus on profits that come from attracting and engaging young people, while neglecting safety.

Laura Marquez-Garrett is an attorney with a group called the Social Media Victims Law Center that's suing Snap Inc., the company that makes Snapchat.

"We have a client who literally drove to Snap's physical address because she was trying to report a dealer who killed her son," Marquez-Garrett testified. "She could not get through to anyone. She could not find a 1-800 number."

Witnesses also testified tech companies have been slow to use their technology to help law enforcement trying to catch drug dealers.

"[Social media companies] seemingly know everything there is to know about me as a private citizen," said Sheriff John Nowels, who created a task force to target on-line drug dealers in Spokane, Wash.

"It is ridiculous to think [companies] don't possess the same ability to identify people who are using their platforms for illicit purposes," he said.

Snapchat is where the kids (and the dealers) go

Much of the criticism focused on one company: Snapchat.

In an interview with NPR, the company acknowledged dealers target kids on their platform for one reason: it's popular.

"This is where young people are, right?" said Jennifer Stout, Snap's vice president for global public policy.

Stout said the company has improved software designed to identify accounts opened by drug dealers and is getting better at cooperating with law enforcement.

"In recent months we have only increased ... our ability to fulfill law enforcement requests for information," she said. "We prioritize these based on urgency. We respond to emergency disclosure requests, often in less than 30 minutes."

Free speech on-line versus safety

Advocates for unfettered speech on the Internet also question whether changing Section 230 to make social companies more vulnerable to civil lawsuits will reduce on-line drug sales.

"I think people who are motivated to find drugs and to use drugs are going to find the ability to use drugs," said Aaron Mackey with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit digital rights group.

According to Mackey, companies are already working to improve safety for kids.

He worries if social media sites are pressured to shut down conversations about drug use — possibly using AI detection tools — it will stifle speech and drive conversations relating to drug use into darker corners of the Internet.

"All it's going to do is make it harder for law enforcement to find where that's occurring, to find who the individuals are and prosecute them," he said.

But fentanyl deaths are rising fast among teenagers and children. One recent study found fatal overdoses among kids under the age of 14 had risen 15-fold in since 2015.

Most experts, including law enforcement officials with the Drug Enforcement Administration, agree social media platforms are a big part of the problem, making fentanyl-laced pills "easily accessible" to kids.

Wednesday's hearing shows Congress and tech companies face intense pressure to make children safer when they go online.

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Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.