Big Tech Touts Opioid Effort as Congressional Crackdown Looms

Capitol Hill may be preparing for another pass at the online platforms’ liability protections, this time with the opioid crisis as a pretext.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
Nov. 13, 2018, 8 p.m.

Silicon Valley is looking to get out in front of the new Congress’s expected effort to further strip top tech companies of their treasured liability protections.

On Tuesday, the top Washington representatives from Facebook, Google, Twitter, and the Internet Association met to announce a new partnership with the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies and trumpet the steps they’re taking to confront America’s devastating opioid epidemic.

The firms, which together comprise the nation’s most powerful and far-reaching online platforms, touted the recent efforts they’ve made to increase their users’ access to opioid education and treatment programs, along with new pushes to facilitate drug-buyback programs and support the work of anti-opioid groups.

“This is a problem that largely exists offline—over 97 percent of people are finding opioids from a friend, a doctor, or places in the offline world,” said Michael Beckerman, the chief executive of the Internet Association. “Yet we see all of these companies, and the rest of our member companies, taking an oversized part of the solution and working hard every day, with the [Food and Drug Administration] and communities, to help solve this epidemic and take a larger share than perhaps the internet might contribute.”

But while online platforms say they’re only trying to be good corporate citizens, tech and health care experts think Silicon Valley is tackling the opioid crisis with more pragmatic concerns in mind.

Last spring’s passage of the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) weakened, for the first time, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a provision protecting online platforms against lawsuits arising from content posted by their users. And as Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and other lawmakers threaten to further undermine those protections when it comes to the illegal sale of opioids, most observers believe Tuesday’s activity shows big tech is working feverishly to prove federal legislation isn’t needed to fix the problem.

“Absolutely the large internet companies would be interested in trying to show that they are undertaking voluntary efforts to address the opioid crisis, as a way of forestalling further regulatory intervention,” said Eric Goldman, a law professor and technology expert at the Santa Clara University School of Law.

That could be a tall order, given the increasing sense on Capitol Hill that big tech has already dropped the ball on issues as varied as election interference, malicious bots, terrorist content, and political bias. With anti-tech fervor now sweeping both parties, Goldman doubts the platforms could ever do enough on opioids to satisfy skeptical lawmakers.

And Libby Baney, a consultant and senior adviser to the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies, says a crackdown on the tech platforms over opioids would be an easy political win for lawmakers on either side of the aisle.

“Every member of Congress needs something to say that they’ve done to help save lives in their district,” Baney said. “And internet regulation is a popular topic. And so it’s kind of a twofer. ... That’s a recipe for congressional activity.”

Lawmakers were already training their sights on the tech platforms’ opioid policies before the passage of FOSTA. Last February, the top lawmakers on the Senate Judiciary Committee joined several other senators in a bipartisan letter urging Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and Pinterest to tackle the problem. And this April, GOP Rep. David McKinley of West Virginia upbraided Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg for his platform’s role in facilitating opioid purchases.

But it wasn’t until September, during an exchange with Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg and Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, that Manchin made the threat explicit.

“We passed bills that held you liable and responsible,” he said, referring to FOSTA. “Don’t you think we should do the same with opiate drugs and they way they’re being used on your platform?”

After several rocky years culminating in a $500 million settlement with the Justice Department in 2011, Google has clamped down particularly hard on advertising for illicit drugs. And Beckerman’s contention that the vast majority of illegal drug sales now occur offline is technically accurate.

But experts say that obscures the role the tech companies still play in facilitating offline purchases of dangerous opioids. Andrew Tsai, a health economist at Brandeis University, said drug dealers often use public tech platforms to promote and host encrypted messaging boards where prospective buyers can set up drug purchases.

“A lot of time the street vendors will use any of the social-media platforms, like Facebook or Twitter,” Tsai said. “They’ll set up a private group, and then use that private group to contact their customer and basically figure out a way to meet and to transact.”

Kevin Martin, the head of Facebook’s public-policy wing in Washington, told National Journal that taking down such content is a top priority for his company. In addition to Tuesday’s new partnership, he said Facebook is rolling out new artificial intelligence tools and algorithms to increase the proactive detection and removal of content facilitating the sale of illegal opioids.

Martin also pushed back on the idea that Facebook’s efforts are being driven by a fear of federal intervention. “Obviously we’re always concerned about when members of Congress have any concerns about what’s going on, and we try to be responsive,” he said. “But I think first and foremost, this is a response to the community.”

Most experts find that hard to believe, particularly given the increased congressional interest in rolling back liability protections and sticking it to Silicon Valley more generally.

“I think there’s definitely been a change in tenor and focus by members of Congress,” said Aaron Mackey, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation who highlighted a “growing sense of concern, and willingness by members of Congress, to revisit Section 230.”

Susan Molinari, the head of public policy at Google, denied that Tuesday’s opioid push was designed to head off congressional activity. But she had a pointed warning for Congress should it decide to further undercut Section 230.

“One of the things we want to constantly make sure they understand is, whenever we go into Section 230, it makes it more difficult for us to find the bad players for all of our platforms,” Molinari told National Journal. “It does not allow to us be as aggressive as we want to on issues like sex trafficking.”

Erin Durkin contributed to this article.
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