Three years ago Amy Neville went into her son Alex’s bedroom and found the 14-year-old lying dead in a bean bag chair. He had overdosed – Neville describes it as “poisoning” – of fentanyl.
“An amazing kid 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, his 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 retailers and other users. It was on Snapchat that he entered into a deal to get pills,” she said.
The drug dealer who sold Alex the fentanyl was never caught or prosecuted. Snapchat hasn’t acknowledged any role in his death.
During Wednesday’s testimony, Neville said social media companies are not being held accountable for endangering children like Alex.
She and other witnesses have called for changes to a provision of federal law known as Section 230.
Would it help open Big Tech to more lawsuits?
Section 230 protects social media companies from most civil suits related to user-created content on their platforms, including users engaged in criminal activity.
“The question isn’t whether technology is completely responsible for illicit drug sales,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong, Republican of North Dakota.
But Armstrong has 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 them [social media] platforms to mitigate the illegal sale of illicit drugs. The answer can no longer be near-total immunity of 230.”
Proponents of Section 230 argue that it has allowed tech companies to open platforms to a wide range of discourse. They fear the changes could lead to a flood of lawsuits, forcing companies to rein in controversial topics.
But critics at Wednesday’s hearing said immunity from civil suits has allowed social media companies to focus on the profits that come from attracting and engaging young people, while neglecting safety.
Laura Marquez-Garrett is a lawyer with a group called the Social Media Victims Law Center who is suing Snap Inc., the company that makes Snapchat.
“We have a client who literally drove to Snap’s physical address because he was trying to report a drug dealer who killed his son,” Marquez-Garrett testified. “She Couldn’t get through to anyone. She Couldn’t find a 1-800 number.”
Witnesses also testified that tech companies have been slow to use their technology to help law enforcement agencies try to catch drug dealers.
“[Social media companies] apparently he knows everything there is to know about me as a private citizen,” he said Sheriff John Nowels, who created a task force to target online drug dealers in Spokane, Washington.
“It’s ridiculous to think [companies] they don’t have the same ability to identify people using their platforms for illicit purposes,” he said.
Snapchat is where kids (and drug dealers) go.
Much of the criticism has focused on one company: Snapchat.
In an interview with NPR, the company acknowledged that retailers target children on their platform for a reason: It’s popular.
“This is where the young people are, right?” said Jennifer Stout, Snap’s vice president of global public policy.
Stout said the company has improved software designed to identify accounts opened by drug dealers and is improving cooperation with law enforcement agencies.
“Over the past few months, we have only increased … our ability to respond to 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.”
Freedom of speech online versus security
Internet free speech advocates also wonder whether changing Section 230 to make social corporations more vulnerable to civil lawsuits will reduce online drug sales.
“I think people who are motivated to find drugs and use them will find the ability to use drugs,” said Aaron Mackey with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights group.
According to Mackey, companies are already working to improve child safety.
He worries that if social media sites are pressured to stop conversations about drug use, possibly using AI detection tools, they will stifle the talk and drive conversations about drug use into the darkest corners of the internet .
“All it’s going to do is make it harder for law enforcement to find out where this is happening, find out who the individuals are and prosecute them,” he said.
But deaths from fentanyl are rising rapidly among teenagers and children. A recent study found that fatal overdoses among children under the age of 14 have increased 15-fold since 2015.
Most experts, including law enforcement officials with the Drug Enforcement Administration, agree that social media platforms are a big part of the problem, making fentanyl pills “easily accessible” to children.
Wednesday’s hearing shows Congress and tech companies face intense pressure to make children safer when they go online.