Once upon a time people complained that the Internet was a cross between the Wild West and the pre-war cabaret scene: an unregulated mess where anything and everything is allowed.
I have some bad news for you. The Internet heard our complaints. Into this regulatory void tech companies have birthed the techno-nanny state. And it’s just as bad.
Over the last few months, I’ve been assisting with a project to bring FFP2 masks—the European equivalent of N95 masks—into the United States for non-medical applications.
Before the coronavirus, almost all of the demand for N95 masks was for people who did industrial jobs, such as welding or spraying pesticides. When the pandemic hit, it became critical to shift these supplies to front-line medical workers. But that didn’t obviate the needs of industrial workers for personal protective equipment. Getting a lung full of pesticide is no picnic, either.
So our idea was to find a way to increase the availability of properly-certified protective masks without affecting the supply available for doctors and nurses. As part of my group’s planning, we were also concerned about another upcoming crisis: California wildfires.
California wildfires are a too-regular occurrence and the fires are only part of the problem. For many people the smoke is more dangerous than the fire. When a fire rages out of control, millions of people can be exposed to dangerously unhealthy air pollution levels, sometimes for months at a time. Apart from general discomfort, wildfire smoke causes a sharp increase in emergency room visits and hospitalizations. It can even kill. One study concluded that smoke from the 2012 Oregon wildfires resulted in 1986 emergency room visits and killed 226 people.
N95 masks are traditionally the first line of defense against wildfire smoke. But we knew that during the pandemic, they simply wouldn’t be available.
With all this in mind, our project settled on a fully-certified FFP2 mask that is widely used in Europe for industrial applications—but not certified for use in medical applications.
Under current OSHA guidance, the FFP2 mask is considered an acceptable substitute when NIOSH N95 masks are unavailable. Working with the factory and setting up the logistics to get more of these FFP2s to America was both expensive and complicated. But eventually, all the pieces fell into place.
The first shipment of masks arrived just a few days before the current batch of California wildfires broke out.
Which was what we had planned for. With air quality levels veering into dangerously unhealthful levels up and down the state, we moved to the last mile of the project: getting these pieces of protective equipment into the hands of the people who needed them.
And that’s where everything went sideways, courtesy of the internet.
The obvious solution was to use Facebook and target ads at the areas suffering the worst wildfire smoke emergencies. But, as it turns out, Facebook has imposed a blanket ban on ads for smoke-filtering masks. “During this unprecedented time, we’re temporarily prohibiting ads commercially promoting certain medical supplies and other high-demand products related to COVID-19 as they have been associated with exploitative behavior. This currently includes . . . N95 masks, KN95, P2, DS2, DL2, KF94, N99, FFP2, or other masks that claim health or preventative capabilities.” Twitter and Google have similar policies.
Nanny states—even techno-nanny states—always start out with the best of intentions. But inevitably, the world is more complicated than the planners imagine and even the best of intentions have unanticipated consequences. What began in the early days of the pandemic as a well-meaning policy to keep some vulnerable users from being exploited has now become a policy that keeps other vulnerable users from getting connected with the equipment they need.
When government regulates commerce, there are multiple levels of correction available, from lobbying officials to the ballot box to the courts. But when Google and Facebook decide to impose private regulations, there is no recourse.
Many of these companies were built around the idea of “increasing returns” which is the idea that, in a networked world, the largest and most powerful companies will tend to become larger and more powerful. And that is what has happened. Google, for example, dominates search engine advertising in the United States. If Google decides, for good reason or bad, that your product isn’t going to be found, it isn’t going to be found. Google’s dominance in search has the ability to turn your perfectly-legal product into de facto contraband.
Which is what our project wound up concluding. We canceled orders that would have brought several hundred thousand certified FFP2 masks into California at the peak of the wildfire season. A lot of people won’t get the equipment they need and this has real-world consequences: These people will put up with unnecessary discomfort and some of them may well end up in an emergency room, or worse. At a minimum, because the supply of masks is constrained, the people who do get hold of respirators will pay more for them than they would have otherwise.
I’m sure it will be a great solace to all of them that Google and Facebook meant well.