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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  1. identicon
    guest, 12 Mar 2018 @ 10:09am

    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.


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