Tech Firms, Fresh Off Privacy-Gate, Now Questioned for Role in Opioid Crisis

Google, Facebook, Twitter et al aren’t catching any breaks from the Trump Administration as they battle concerns they’ve exposed user data inappropriately, might be spying on users and — the latest — that they may have played an out-sized role in the opioid crisis that’s killed anywhere from 59,000 to 65,000 people in 2016 alone.

President Donald Trump’s Commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Scott Gottlieb, said in a speech this week that huge tech firms are advertising the quick and easy sale of these high-octane prescription drugs.

“[We] find offers to purchase opioids all over social media and the Internet, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Google, Yahoo, and Bing,” Gottlieb said to a crowd in Atlanta. “The easy availability and online purchase of these products from illegal drug peddlers is rampant and fuels the opioid crisis.”

According to Gottlieb, the FDA conducted a “dark web” operation to examine how difficult or simple it was to purchase fentanyl and other highly-addictive prescription painkillers online (including one called carfentanil, a synthetic opioid so powerful it’s used as an elephant tranquilizer). Their research concluded that purchasing illicit drugs was, in fact, as easy as buying any other product online.

What’s more, the commissioner called out tech firms for their policy of looking the other way at the advertisement and sale of opioids and other illicit drugs for fear they would assume a “policing” role on their platforms. A stark contrast to how quickly they move to shut down similar advertisements that promote political or policy initiatives that may be problematic.

I’m concerned that social media companies, internet service providers (ISP) firms that host websites, and others in the internet ecosystem haven’t been proactive enough in rooting out these illegal offers to distribute opioids from their respective platforms. I think we can work with them to do much more to address this public health danger.

Internet firms simply aren’t taking practical steps to find and remove these illegal opioid listings. There’s ample evidence of narcotics being advertised and sold online. I know that Internet firms are reluctant to cross a threshold; where they could find themselves taking on a broader policing role. But these are insidious threats being propagated on these web platforms. ISPs and social media sites have stepped in to crack down on illegal activities when they’ve been forced to, such as when it comes to the sale of child pornography. And we’ve also seen them step in when some advertising offended their political prerogatives.

But so far, when it comes to opioids, we haven’t seen meaningful, voluntary actions. Yet the magnitude of the public health emergency presented by the opioid crisis requires a change in mindset among Internet companies and the adoption of a more responsible, collective approach to eliminating illegal opioid distribution via the Internet. We want to work collaboratively with these firms to organize this action. We trust that the leaders of these firms share our concerns when it comes to this public health crisis. We hope they’ll join our effort.

Gottlieb, in an effort to bring tech firms to the table to help find a solution to a public health crisis he believes they helped foster, said the FDA will be hosting a summit with tech CEOs, stakeholders, academics, etc. to discuss the issue and brainstorm possible solutions, such as designing new search algorithms that will redirect those seeking to buy drugs to the homepages of treatment centers and to information portals about addiction.

“We need to work together on shared solutions to address the problem of opioids marketing in the online space, and we need Internet media companies to be our partners in this effort; taking on more social responsibility for implementing those solutions,” Gottlieb said.