NYT: Why is Big Tech blocking N95 mask sales?

The answer is: they’re not … directly, anyway. The problem, as the New York Times reports, originates at the CDC, where their guidance on N95 mask sales has not changed since the beginning of the pandemic. Almost a full year later, however, that guidance is keeping millions of high-performance masks sitting on the shelf, and punishing the people who invested time and big money to help solve the PPE shortages.

It has also exposed the dangers of monopoly control of markets, which is precisely where Big Tech comes into the story:

It was the Facebook ad for a mask doubling as a hair scrunchie that pushed Dan Castle to despair.

His company, CastleGrade, makes a reusable, high-filtration face mask that has been popular among dentists, teachers and those who work in proximity to others — and willing to pay $44.99.

But he has been unable to sell his wares on Facebook since August, when the company abruptly blocked his ads, citing a policy aimed at ensuring medical-grade masks are reserved for health care workers. Since then, he said, sales have plummeted to $5,000 a day from $40,000. And yet, he sees ads for nonmedical grade masks all of the time.

It’s not just Facebook, either. Thanks to ramped-up production at 3M, Kimberly-Clark, and others, most health-care facilities can access enough N95 masks to get by, so they are loath to work with the newer start-ups. That wouldn’t be a problem if they could access the mass-consumer markets, but Amazon has also decided to favor the established N95 players and all but lock out the start-ups. But they will sell lots of lower-level masks, including the scrunchies:

Amazon allows the sale of N95s, but it has effectively given a monopoly to a handful of big companies like Kimberly-Clark, Halyard Health and Makrite, whose products the site buys in bulk and then ships to shoppers directly from Amazon warehouses. Small companies that sell N95s are often blocked from selling their wares directly to consumers unless the buyer has an Amazon business account.

Individual customers who search for N95 masks receive a welter of KN95s, a Chinese mask that is less effective than the N95s. Amazon’s offerings can change from day to day. Much of the time, ordinary shoppers are greeted with a message that says the item is unavailable because it is “prioritized for organizations on the front lines responding to Covid-19.”

Remember, though, that the CDC guidance is just that — guidance, not regulation, which they have no authority to impose. There is no restriction on the sale of approved N95 masks, apart from the hurdles being thrown in front of those sales by the tech platforms. There is no requirement on any of these Big Tech platforms to enforce that guidance; they can decide for themselves whether that guidance makes any sense. It might have eleven months ago, but now it penalizes the investors and producers that put considerable risk into responding to a national emergency.

Both companies featured in the NYT sell their products directly through their websites, but of course consumers need to know where to look for those products. That has Dan Castle of Castle Grade frustrated, as he told me earlier today. That’s not the only thing that has him frustrated, however. After the NYT’s story this weekend, Castle had hoped that the coverage would prompt other media outlets to follow up. So far, though, he has only heard from two — Cheddar TV, which wants to do a follow-up on an earlier interview, and Hot Air. “I’m booked from 10 to 5 on Netflix,” Dan joked when we discussed it.

Castle Grade has a number of issues with access to market. Among them are backlogged applications for approvals at the FDA, CDC, and NIOSH, despite the emergency need for PPE manufacturing in general and N95 masks in particular. (Their masks are FDA registered.) However, the biggest problem by far is the monopolistic behavior of the Big Tech players, especially Facebook. Cutting off advertising was “literally like someone turned the water off,” Dan told me. Only after the NYT story did consumers find their way back to Castle Grade in levels that approach the interest shown before Facebook’s intervention.

Congress has made a habit of dragging these Big Tech CEOs into hearings to debate whether they are monopolies. Dan insists they’re asking the wrong people. Rather than talk to these CEOs, they should “talk to the entrepreneurs,” he says with some frustration. “Ask them if they can survive without Facebook.” He also wonders about why the media has such a lack of interest in this critical part of the COVID-19 story as well, and whether that has to do with advertising access. The answer to that question will give Congress all they need to know about the lack of competitive options for entrepreneurs and the status of Facebook as a de facto monopoly, especially demonstrated against N95 mask start-ups like Castle Grade.

Kudos to the New York Times for diving into this story, perhaps most especially given the odd lack of curiosity over the fate of the investors and entrepreneurs who answered the PPE call only to be hung out to dry a bit by the system. Dan Castle will join me on Thursday’s installment of The Ed Morrissey Show to discuss more of these issues, including the regulatory obstacles Castle Grade faces, and to talk more about his products.

Addendum: For full disclosure, I purchased masks from Castle Grade at full retail price, as I mentioned last night on Twitter. That had nothing to do with this interview other than start a conversation with Dan Castle afterward, but it’s better to be too transparent than not transparent enough.