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Big Tech's central role in opioid epidemic debate

Food and Drug Administrator Scott Gottlieb
FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Tech companies are cooperating with federal officials to crack down on illegal opioids being sold on the internet. But that doesn't mean congressional action on the issue is out of the question.

What we're watching: Silicon Valley is trying to defuse tensions with the Food and Drug Administration, and FDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb's comments that tech is cooperating show their efforts may be working. But some lawmakers say they’re open to regulation for the platforms if the problem persists.

Why it matters: The opioid epidemic is increasingly being driven by synthetic opioids, which often come into the country through international mail.

  • These opioids, including fentanyl — which is more deadly than other opioids — are sometimes purchased online.
  • There were an estimated 72,000 drug overdose deaths in 2017, per the NYT, and a leading contributor to the increase in overdose rates is deadly synthetic opioids.

Members of Congress have put pressure on Silicon Valley over the issue. And in April, Gottlieb said in a speech that "internet firms simply aren't taking practical steps to find and remove these illegal opioid listings."

Driving the news: Last week, Gottlieb told Axios things have improved since then. “We are just beginning to learn how to work with them in a much deeper, more collaborative fashion," he said.

  • He said some public actions have included platforms limiting the reach of certain websites implicated in the opioid trade and redirecting people to treatment sites.
  • “But they're also taking steps privately where they're helping us in some of our joint efforts and joint operations, and I'll just leave it at that."

The FDA has been clear about what it wants from Congress, like more funding for staff working in International Mail Facilities.

  • But as of now, it hasn't asked Congress for any action that would hold tech companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter liable for the content being sold on or through their sites.

Congress hasn't ruled out taking action in the future, and lawmakers pointed to possible model: legislation passed earlier this year that makes it possible for victims of sex-trafficking to sue online platforms that facilitated the crime.

  • "The harm caused to people through fentanyl, which is killing Americans in thousands, is arguably as great as the harm caused to people through human trafficking," Democratic Sen. Chris Coons told Axios.
  • Republican Sen. Thom Tillis said that "in the same way that we tailored it for human trafficking, I think that’s the way — that’s at least a part of what we have to do."

This is all still in the conceptual stage, and there's no visible movement to draft or push legislation in the area.

The other side: “Though evidence shows the epidemic is primarily an offline problem, internet companies are committed to playing an outsize role in fighting this tragedy," said Melika Carroll, a senior vice president at the trade group Internet Association, whose members include Google and Facebook.

  • Carroll said making it possible to sue web platforms in opioid cases would actually make it more difficult for them to combat the sale of drugs online.
  • Sen. Claire McCaskill, who has also been active on the opioids issue, said there are "other ways we can get at that other than holding tech companies liable for content. I want to be careful going down that road, because it’s a slippery slope."
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