In the latest round of “who’s to blame for the opioid crisis,” the Food and Drug Administration hosted a summit in June 2018, to which it invited representatives from major Internet-related tech companies. The goal of the summit was to discuss ways to take action against the sale of illegal opioids online. The FDA initially planned to ask tech companies to sign a “Pledge to Reduce the Availability of Illicit Opioids Online,” which was meant to signify an intention to help reduce the availability of opioids on the Internet. The pledge was put on the back burner, however, when the FDA claimed that it would instead take the results of the summit and turn them into a plan for all Internet stakeholders, not just the ones present at the meeting. Critics were left wondering if the tech giants had opposed the idea of the pledge and the government had caved.
In April FDA Scott Commissioner Gottlieb, while speaking at the National Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Summit, stated that tech companies haven’t been proactive enough in eliminating the sale of illegal drugs. He pointed out that offers to purchase illegal opioids could be found just about anywhere online, including Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Reddit, Google, Yahoo, and Bing. Research by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy also found that when people search online for prescription opioids using one of the three major search engines, nearly 91 percent of the first search results that are displayed lead users to an illegal online drug seller offering prescription opioids.
In early June, the FDA took action against pharmacy websites, sending warning letters to nine companies that operate 53 online pharmacies and ordering them to stop marketing opioids.
The Internet Association, which represents many of the summit attendees including Microsoft, Google, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Pinterest, Snapchat, Amazon, and eBay, argued that the opioid crisis was not really an online problem. They pointed out that according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, most people who abuse opioids acquire them from doctors, drug dealers, or friends.
The tech companies also assert that most of the illegal opioid trade takes place on the dark web, not on easily accessible sites, and that the majority of ads the Commissioner alluded to were really clickbait, or scams that attempt to procure your personal information but don’t allow you to actually buy anything.
There has been some movement by the companies to combat the opioid epidemic. Facebook announced plans to redirect people trying to buy opioids to a crisis helpline. Instagram has cracked down on opioid-related hashtags. Google promoted the DEA’s Drug Take-Back Day in April with a special tool on its search homepage. It’s a start, critics say, but these companies still need to face problems head-on rather than shifting blame.
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