How much should Google and others police search results to stop illegal drug sales?

October 7, 2013

A consumer watchdog group is highlighting how dangerously easy it is to buy illegal steroids and prescription drugs over the Web with nothing more than a simple search. And it’s calling on Google to lead the way in hampering users’ online access to these drugs.

But in wrestling with the question of how to curb this sort of activity, Web firms such as Google must also weigh another question: How much should any search engine censor its results?

According to a report from the Digital Citizens Alliance,t search engines such as Google can profit from the illegal activity through Internet drug ads. When a user types terms such as “steroids without a prescription” in a search engine, for example, the results include links to sites advertising steroids or other drugs for sale online without a prescription. The DCA and some state attorneys general want Google to start cracking down on listing results from these kinds of queries on the Web and on its YouTube video site. They’re also urging search engines to stop the practice of placing advertisements on those search results.

“Criminals essentially pay Google to market illegal and dangerous items,” said Digital Citizens Alliance executive director Tom Galvin. “It is almost like Google is getting a piece of the action. They make a fortune off of really bad people. I’m sure more than a few criminals are saying today ‘who needs Silk Road who you have YouTube?’”

In a statement, YouTube outlined how it has been addressing the issue, saying that it takes user safety “very seriously” and has guidelines in place that prohibit content that encourages dangerous, illegal activity — including that which promotes the sale of drugs.

“YouTube’s review teams respond to videos flagged for our attention around the clock, removing millions of videos each year that violate our policies,” the company said. “We also have stringent advertising guidelines, and work to prevent ads appearing against any video, channel or page once we determine that the content is not appropriate for our advertising partners.”

A YouTube spokeswoman said the site has blocked ads on search results pages for several queries related to steroid use after ABC News reported on the issue last week. That report found that many of those drug-selling sites peddle fake drugs — some of which could not even be identified by labs that ABC News had hired.

Internet access to illegal steroids has drawn particular worry for its potential impact on younger men. According to a study conducted by the DCA and the Taylor Hooton Foundation, 36 percent of males between ages 18 and 25 said they or someone they know had taken appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs. Don

Hooton is president of the foundation, which is named for his son and dedicated to raising awareness about teen steroid use. Hooton, who says his son’s suicide at the age of 17 was linked to steroid use, is troubled by the ease with which young people can buy steroids online.

“If a 16-year-old can use these engines to find these Web sites, then so can the management of Google and YouTube,” Hooton said. “And they don’t need to wait for someone to ‘report’ these sites to them before they are in a position to take action. Instead of this passive approach, they should be taking an active approach to making sure our children don’t have access to these sites via their engines.”

But, Google has argued there are other issues that crop up when considering blocking search results, such as free speech. The company has said that it will block results only in narrow circumstances and that it’s up to lawmakers and the court system to weigh in on censorship issues. That’s the argument the search engine took when addressing requests that it refuse links to online pharmacies.

“Search results reflect the web and what’s online -- the good and the bad,” the company said in a June blog post. “Filtering a website from search results won’t remove it from the web, or block other websites that link to that website. It’s not Google’s place to determine what content should be censored -- that responsibility belongs with the courts and the lawmakers.”

Jim Hood, Mississippi’s attorney general and the co-chairman of the intellectual property committee for the National Association of Attorneys General, said that credit card companies have already agreed to work with law enforcement to crack down on these kinds of transactions. Hood said he has reached out to Google and Yahoo in the past on the issue of illegal drugs and counterfeit goods being sold on the Web and that he’d like to continue those conversations.

He said he is drafting a letter with other attorneys general to invite Google to speak with them about how best to go after such illegal activity in a way everyone can agree upon.

“Blocking is not a good word, but there are ways that they can stop steering people to an illegal site,” said Hood. “We attorneys general have a list of things they could do easily that wouldn’t hurt business model and would stop steering people to these kinds of sites.”

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Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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