Five Senators Agree: Search Engines Should Censor Drug Information

from the foot-in-the-door-for-greater-government-control-of-web-content dept

The US government would like to be involved in the web censorship business. The anti-sex trafficking bill recently passed by the House would do just that, forcing service providers to pre-censor possibly harmless content out of fear of being sued for the criminal acts of private citizens. Much has been made recently of “fake news” and its distribution via Russian bots, with some suggesting legislation is the answer to a problem no one seems to be able to define. This too would be a form of censorship, forcing social media platforms to make snap decisions about new users and terminate accounts that seem too automated or too willing to distribute content Congressional reps feel is “fake.”

For the most part, legislation isn’t in the making. Instead, reps are hoping to shame, nudge, and coerce tech companies into self-censorship. This keeps the government’s hands clean, but there’s always the threat of a legal mandate backing legislators’ suggestions.

Key critic of Russian bots and social media companies in general — Senator Dianne Feinstein — has signed a handful of letters asking four major tech companies to start censoring drug-related material. Her co-signers on these ridiculous letters are Chuck Grassley, Amy Klobuchar, John Kennedy, and Sheldon Whitehouse. As members of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotic Control, they apparently believe Microsoft, Yahoo (lol), Pinterest, and Google should start preventing users for searching for drug information. (h/t Tom Angell)

The letters [PDFs here: Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Pinterest] all discuss the search results returned when people search for information on buying drugs. (For instance, “buy percocet online.”) But the letter doesn’t limit itself to asking these companies to ensure only legitimate sites show up in the search results. It actually asks the companies to censor all results for drug information.

The senators specifically urge Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Pinterest to take the following steps in helping us fight the opioid crisis:

  • Directing users to legal and legitimate pharmacies that require a valid prescription as a condition of sale when users search for medicines on each platforms;
  • Disabling the ability to search for illicit drugs through each platform;
  • Requiring each platform to report to law enforcement when that platform receives information indicating that a company wants to advertise the use of or sale of illicit narcotics;
  • Establishing a 24/7 telephone point of contact with whom law enforcement can communicate directly; and
  • Incorporating training for each platform’s security reviewers to enable them to better recognize these threats when they first arise.

It’s the second bullet point that’s key. It simply says “disable the ability to search for illicit drugs.” There’s no way to comply with that directive that won’t result in the disappearance of useful information needed by thousands of search engine users. As Angell points out in this tweet, this would possibly cause information about drug interactions to be delisted. On top of that, students often need to research illegal drugs for class assignments and term papers. Authors and journalists also need access to a variety of drug info, including various ways they can be purchased online. Law enforcement Googles stuff just like the rest of us and its ability to track down purveyors of illegal drugs would be harmed if it was all pushed off the open web.

Those seeking to buy illegal drugs would find other ways of accomplishing this even if the info disappears. The so-called dark web is an off-the-radar option that many are using already. A whole host of useful info is in danger of being removed simply because questionable purveyors of prescription drugs have found a way to game search engine algorithms.

All of the companies receiving letters already have policies in place to restrict the illicit sale of drugs. They also have policies in place to forward pertinent info to law enforcement agencies. So, companies are already doing much of what is asked, but these senators feel the mere existence of questionable sites in search results makes these companies “facilitators” of illegal drug sales.

If SESTA is signed into law, it will make it that much easier for the government to demand similar legislation targeting opioid distribution. It will allow the government to claw back more of the immunity granted to service providers with the passage of the Communications Decency Act. The more holes drilled into Section 230 by legislation, the easier it is to remove it entirely, and paint targets on the back of search engines and social media platforms.

It’s also dangerous to suggest companies need to set up dedicated 24/7 service for law enforcement agencies. This will only encourage law enforcement to bypass legal protections set up by previous legislation and lean on companies already feeling the heat from the government’s increasingly-insane reaction to opioid overdoses. Warrants will seem unnecessary when legislators in DC are saying tech companies must be more responsive to law enforcement than they already are.

A suggestion from the government to start censoring search results is exactly that: censorship. The government may not be mandating it, but this is nothing like a concerned citizens group asking for more policing of search results. There’s the threat of legislation and other government action propelling it. Even if these senators aren’t mandating policy changes, they’re still using the weight of their position to compel alteration of search results.

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Companies: google, microsoft, pinterest, yahoo

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Comments on “Five Senators Agree: Search Engines Should Censor Drug Information”

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Anonymous Coward says:

"Illegal" drugs

Are any drugs actually illegal? As far as I know, they’re all legal under the right circumstances. For example, Stepan Company has permission to handle raw coca leaves and sell the cocaine to Mallinckrodt (and the cocaine-free remnants to Coca-cola), and four people get marijuana directly from the federal government (starting in 1978, "Patients receive 300 freeze-dried joints per month, with instructions on rehydration").

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "Illegal" drugs

“Actually illegal” vs. “completely illegal” are two very different things.

It is actually illegal for me to kill someone. But not if they’re trying to kill me and I act in self-defense.

It is actually illegal for me to sell alcohol on Sundays. But not if I move to a county without blue laws.

It is actually illegal for me to fly an airplane. But not if I get certified as a pilot.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: "Illegal" drugs

It is actually illegal for me to kill someone. But not if they’re trying to kill me and I act in self-defense.

Murder is always illegal. Killing in self-defense isn’t murder. So you shouldn’t refer to killing as "illegal"; if you mean "murder", say it.

Too bad "controlled chemicals used in an illegal manner" has no similar shorthand.

Roger Strong (profile) says:

Re: "Illegal" drugs

Are any drugs actually illegal?

Are any drugs actually legal?

Until a July Florida appeals court ruling, Mark O’Hara, 45, had been in prison for two years of a 25-year mandatory-minimum for trafficking in hydrocodone, based solely on the 58 tablets found in his possession in 2004, even though his supply had been lawfully prescribed by a physician. The state attorney in Tampa had pointed out that Florida law did not mention a "prescription" defense to trafficking, and even though O’Hara had lined up a doctor and a pharmacist to testify, the jury wasn’t allowed to consider the issue. After the appeals court called the case "absurd" and ordered a new trial with the prescription evidence allowed, the state attorney still refused to drop the case. [St. Petersburg Times, 8-9-07, via News of the Weird]

State and federal agencies have started mining medical databases and arresting those whose doctors’ prescriptions they disagree with.

It’s only a matter of how much this law would block searches on lawful prescription drugs.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: "Illegal" drugs

It’s only a matter of how much this law would block searches on lawful prescription drugs.

If it’s true that cocaine is used in eye surgery, I want the doctors to know as much as possible about it. As we’ve seen from studies of academic citations, papers behind "walls" (paywalls etc.) are seen much less often than public ones.

Anonymous Coward says:

I used to work for a government agency that was involved in setting policies for drug use by first responders. The overzealous site blocking courtesy of our IT department restricted our analysts and medical people from researching drugs. I had elevated access because of my job so I’d have to help them look things up. I was eventually dinged for too much internet usage by our crack IT group.

This is just dumb and shows a clear lack of understanding of the way of things Internet.

If there is a bad law in the works relating to tech, privacy or the like you can just about guarantee that Diane Feinstein will have touched it. How does she not get better advice given the district she represents? And for the love of, whomever, someone, anyone run against her.

Anonymous Coward says:

If the US Government wants to actually do something about the “opioid crisis,” maybe they should start looking into what’s causing it. If people want the drugs, there’s a reason. Remove or repair the reason, people won’t want the drugs anymore, and *poof* no more opioid crisis.

However, it wouldn’t surprise me to discover that the socioeconomic factors underlying this issue are similar to the socioeconomic factors that drive others to mass shootings (different responses to the same stimuli)… and nobody in government will want to even consider that ‘Murica (Eff Yeah!) itself might be the problem.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Five Senators Agree: Search Engines Should Censor Drug Information”

90% of population agree politicians should not be allowed to receive bribes (lobbying)

90% of population agree politicians should do what is in the best interest of the population instead of pandering to corporations.

10% of population is either a politician or a direct relative to a politician

guest says:

Re: Stupid is as stupid does

The American pharmaceutical industry is SEVERELY price-gouging the public: the same drugs they market in the U.S. are sold much more cheaply throughout the rest of the world. The members of congress who are trying to protect this racket are taking bribes from the pill cartel. This kind of greed is a mental illness, and the psychopaths behind it are not capable of seeing how ridiculous they look in the eyes of everyone else.

Personanongrata says:

Senator Nincompoop, I Presume?

Five Senators Agree: Search Engines Should Censor Drug Information

Would some one please explain to the Five know-nothing nincompoops masquerading as Senators that a when a person queries an internet search engine they are exercising freedom of speech.

It matters not one iota whether the nincompoops posing as Senators like or dislike the words being typed into the search engine or the results of the query.

In a nation that prides itself as being the so-called "land of the free" where is the governments authority to arbitrarily decree verboten certain substances a consenting adult may or may not ingest derived?

On a positive note, italicized/bold text below was excerpted from the website

California Democratic Party declines to endorse Dianne Feinstein for re-election

ECA (profile) says:

to much

To much Security.
To much RICH people paranoia..
Having OTHERS protect you..
from yourself
From Others
Is giving others responsibility of YOUR LIFE, and what you do.. You might as well be in your mothers Arms..and NOT be able to wonder and explore..

WHO is responsible FOR YOU..?
If you want to be an Idiot, and do the SAME thing another idiot DID, would it be nice to KNOW WHAT THEY DID, BADLY??

Anonymous Coward says:

Let’s see the big pharma companies have all the politicians they need paid off. Doctors as well are paid off through perks and help spread the problem. Let’s not do anything about that and make the ISP’s problem. At the same time we’ll continue our war on marijuana and claim it has no medical use and is classified as a worse drug than opioids.

cattress (profile) says:

I can’t help but wonder if any of those Senators have actually searched any of the targeted sites or Google for places online to actually purchase a prescription drug, particularly a narcotic, with or without a prescription. And upon finding any website that claims to sell the drugs online, with their naivety, do any appear to have a reputation that indicates you wouldn’t be handing over your credit card and billing/shipping information to thieves who would immediately max out your card and haunt you with identity theft? Do they even have a clue what legitimate patients deal with? Narcotics scripts must be submitted electronically by the prescriber in most places, and otherwise must be an original presented in person- so that the patient can be given sufficient disapproving glares to ensure that they understand that no one believes they actually need such medication, and feel deep shame for their disgusting drug seeking behavior.
Hell, most pharmacies won’t even tell a patient over the phone if they have a narcotic in stock and sufficient quantity to fill the amount prescribed (because you forfeit any quantity that cannot be filled if they run out).
The DEA seized cannabis lockboxes from the shipping company so that responsible adults could not purchase them at the same dispensaries they buy cannabis. Do these senators actually think the DEA doesn’t ensure that it’s nearly impossible to get drugs from an unregulated/ non-U.S. pharmacy? Just for fun, I would love to see one of these senators go ahead and try to order from Canada, just to see the DEA conduct a pre-dawn no knock raid on their home. I mean, even if the DEA intercepts the package, who knows what these traffickers already have in their possession.
I want some lawmakers to feel consequences of their thoughtless “doing something”, just like the rest of us.

takitus (profile) says:

We have the solution!


Censor drug-related Web searches → no more opioid crisis!

Censor porn on the Web → no more sex trafficking!

Censor searches involving the keywords “army”, “missile”, “rifle”, etc. → world peace at last!

It turns out the physical world never actually had any problems. It was just the Web giving people the idea to screw it up.


Dan Reardonfeld says:

Re: Re:

Why start somewhere down the line, with “treatment”, when you can simply remove what causes the problems, in the first place.

Certain substances are currently considered “bad” by what society is told by the government for one simple reason:

-Because they are illegal.

Add to that a massive, decades-long anti-drug government propaganda campaign (paid for with taxpayer dollars) and you have the situation we find ourselves in, at present:

-Everyone has been brainwashed into believing all drugs are “bad”, and they subsequently believe that those that people who use those substances, for whatever reason, are also “bad” – and therefore they need to be punished in a manner that is much worse than using the drug, itself, for some reason, while having their lives destroyed by the “justice” system, because that makes sense, somehow.

Of course, the mountains of revenue raked in annually by the government from fines, fees, incarceration, public funding, etc. surrounding drug prohibition is rarely, if ever, mentioned, at all. That money is the actual reason the drug war exists, may no mistake about that. Money is always the reason behind any government decision, and nothing more.

Here’s an example of how ridiculous things are:

Until Richard Nixon commenced the war on drugs, there were over ten million people with prescriptions for methamphetamine, and roughly another fifteen million with prescriptions for amphetamine, since both of these stimulants are quite useful substances, that benefit a lot of people, for plenty of reasons. Those prescriptions were for daily use, of course, like basically all prescriptions are.

Once the drug war started, many millions of people were denied access to the medication that many had benefited from for decades. Left out in the cold, as it were. What happened? So-called “meth labs” suddenly began to appear, when they had never existed previously. The drug war created meth labs, because you couldn’t simply get the drugs from a doctor, anymore.

Of course, without drugs being handled by a doctor, the usual route of administration defaults to self-titration, which rarely ends well. This is mainly because most people don’t have a set of scales that are accurate enough to measure their dose, or even know what that dose should be. That’s because of the war on drugs, too.

When you realize the entire reason the drug war was started was to make it easier for the government to have people arrested, a fact which has been repeatedly proven, it’s enough to make you sick.

Drugs are bad because they’re illegal, and the legalities ruin lives and tear apart families.

That sort of thing didn’t happen when doctors doled out pills to people who could benefit from them, and that’s the way it should be today, instead of ruining people’s lives for money, like the way the cops are doing so well.

Here’s another perfect example:

If methamphetamine is as evil as we’ve all been told by the government, why is it FDA approved for use by children as young as six years old?

*methamphetamine has been continually prescribed in the US since the 1930s.

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