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
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 9:41am

    *Guy in trench coat and sunglasses* Hey kid, want to try some cocaine?

    *Teenager, pulling out his phone to Google it* Well, nothing bad shows up in the search results. Sure, why not!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 9:47am

    Marajuana is still

    a Schedule I drug. We need to make sure that no cancer patients find out the benefits of it while taking chemo treatments.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 9:48am

    Given their support of SESTA and other similarly idiotic things in the past, it wouldn't shock me to see Google get on board with this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 9:55am

    "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").

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:11am

    Re: "Illegal" drugs

    Is anything "actually illegal"?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:14am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:23am

    The law isn't a problem in and of itself, enforcement on the other hand...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:27am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:31am

    "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

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Rapnel (profile), 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:33am

    Burn all of the books.
    It's the only way.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:34am

    *Five People Standing Around a Computer Monitor Agree: Five Senators Are Idiots

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    Jordan, 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:37am

    Know who liked banning information? Nazis.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:39am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Personanongrata, 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:41am

    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 www.mercurynews.com:

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

    https://www.mercurynews.com/2018/02/25/california-democratic-party-declines-to-endorse-d ianne-feinstein-in-re-election-bid/

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:44am

    Re: "Illegal" drugs

    Cocaine is Schedule II and is used in eye surgery.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:52am

    There's no way to comply with that directive that won't result in the disappearance of useful information needed by millions of search engine users.

    FTFY. Feinstein continues to prove that she's a clueless fucking dunce. Wish she would just buy the farm already.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    ECA (profile), 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:52am

    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??

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:54am

    Re:

    Teen 1: "Do those five senators have a history of drug use?"

    Teen 2: "I'd Google it, but a null result could just mean that their vague law is blocking any mention of their drug use."

    Teen 1: "How convenient!"

    Teen 2: "However, judging by their sense of reality..."

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 11:06am

    I bet big pharma loves this as it could prevent disclosure of those pesky side effects before the patients decide to purcha$e

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20. icon
    Roger Strong (profile), 8 Mar 2018 @ 11:11am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 11:58am

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 11:59am

    Re: Re: "Illegal" drugs

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

    That's the point. We don't refer to planes as "illegal aircraft".

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 12:03pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 12:55pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 1:57pm

    Re:

    > Know who liked banning information? Nazis.

    Fake news.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26. icon
    JoeCool (profile), 8 Mar 2018 @ 3:55pm

    I'd like to see them try it

    Now, how many nick-names are there for Marijuana? All sellers would have to do is come up with another nick-name... and another... and another. Someone will have the bright idea to nick-name their drug "President Trump" and that will be the end of the search filtering.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  27. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 8 Mar 2018 @ 6:00pm

    That's no Internet. Time to start a new one?!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  28. icon
    That One Guy (profile), 8 Mar 2018 @ 7:12pm

    Re: I'd like to see them try it

    I'd make a joke about how dealers could also name drugs after politicians but given stories like this I suspect that said politicians would rather like not having people able to do searches on their names, such that you have to get any information on what they're doing/have done directly from them.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  29. icon
    cattress (profile), 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:11pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  30. icon
    takitus (profile), 8 Mar 2018 @ 10:18pm

    We have the solution!

    Apparently:

    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.

    /s

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  31. identicon
    Anonymous Professor, 9 Mar 2018 @ 7:53am

    The internet is all over the world. Just forcing US companies to censor the results will not block the results. Plus, if the US government places too many demands on Google, they can move that part of their business to a country that is freer than the US, losing US jobs in the process.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  32. icon
    John85851 (profile), 10 Mar 2018 @ 3:10pm

    Re: We have the solution!

    And all of this leads to:
    Censor the web > no more finding information > keep the population stupid > no more speaking up against the government because people don't know any better.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  33. 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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  34. icon
    Dank710 (profile), 13 Mar 2018 @ 1:05pm

    What a GREAT idea to make our drug problem even worse. Less information means people will lose the desire to use drugs. Yea that makes a lot of sense. Legislation is NOT the answer to our drug problem. Never was, or will.

    TREATMENT IS THE ONLY ANSWER

    BUT THE EVIL CONS WANT ADDICTS DEAD...unless it's their kid hooked on smack ofc

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


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