What took so long, Snapchat? On Thursday, NPR reported that the app is phasing out a "speed filter" that lets users track and share how fast they are moving. Unsurprisingly, it's been linked to a number of deadly or near-fatal car crashes since 2013, when the feature was introduced. A lot of the time, the victims in those gruesome accidents are teenagers.
In 2015, the speed filter was connected to a collision in Philadelphia that killed three young women, as well as an accident in Georgia that left a driver with permanent brain damage. Five people died in a high-speed crash in Florida in 2016 that reportedly involved the feature. Three young men in Wisconsin using the filter topped out at 123 miles per hour in 2017 before they hit a tree and died.
Snap Inc. has faced lawsuits from the families of victims killed in these accidents, who argued the feature incentivized driving at dangerous speeds for bragging rights. California lawyer Naveen Ramachandrappa wrote in a suit that some teens believed topping 100 mph unlocked trophies and digital prizes in the app: "Or at the very least, they want to find out if they will be so rewarded and so they drive at excessive speeds to see what will happen." In May, a federal appeals court ruled the family of the victims of the Wisconsin crash should be able to sue Snap for negligence.
The app implemented some changes in response to these tragedies. It downgraded the speed feature from a "filter" to a "sticker" and slapped on a "Don't Snap and drive" warning that popped up whenever the feature was used. They also capped the top recordable speed at 35 mph. But despite safety warnings and legal challenges, Snapchat always defended the speed feature, which is why its sudden reversal this week is surprising. "Lives will be saved. Crashes will be prevented, but the lawyer in me says, 'My God, why did it take so long?'" Joel Feldman, co-founder of End Distracted Driving, told NPR.
It's pretty apparent NPR's reporting had a lot to do with Snap Inc.'s decision to finally remove the feature. The news outlet questioned the company about its reticence to retire the speed filter over several weeks, to which a company spokesperson responded: "Nothing is more important than the safety of our Snapchat community." A month later, the same person confirmed the feature was being scrapped but gave an interesting explanation: the filter "is barely used by Snapchatters, and in light of that, we are removing it altogether," they told NPR.
Snapchat is covering its tracks, legally speaking, by not owning up to the role the filter could have played in the deaths of young users. But increasingly, tech companies are responsible for assessing risks associated with their products and features. "If you have a new tool or feature: What does it allow? What does it invite? And what does it incentivize? There are degrees of responsibility based on those three things," Irina Raicu, director of the Internet Ethics Program at Santa Clara University, told NPR. "This Snapchat filter seems like maybe it was missing some of those conversations initially. Sometimes, one of the most thoughtful ways to deploy a product is to never deploy it at all."