Just how easy is it to get illegal drugs online? Sometimes, as easy as searching for them on YouTube.
A study from the Digital Citizens Alliance, a nonprofit that has targeted Google and YouTube in the past for hosting this kind of content, has found that there's been a resurgence of videos that instruct users on how to buy prescription drugs and steroids online without prescriptions, as well as other items such as fake driver's licenses.
The new study, released Monday, is a follow-up to a similar summation of such content on YouTube that the group released last year, as state attorneys general also raised questions about how the tech giant was addressing the problem of content promoting illegal activity cropping up on its popular video site. That, in turn, prompted Google to write an official blog post explaining how it combats rogue pharmacies, and explaining that its community guidelines on YouTube prohibit much of that activity. The company also deleted several videos that instructed viewers how to obtain drugs illegally.
A year later, the Digital Citizens Alliance says, the videos are back.
"We have to point out these problems, and hopefully they'll get solved," said Tom Galvin, executive director of the Digital Citizens Alliance. "We don't expect anyone to be perfect from the get-go, but we have to get beyond this game of whack-a-mole."
Galvin also raised questions about how much advertising revenue Google may be making off YouTube ads on the videos — questions that have also been raised by state attorneys general who have asked Google to take further steps to address these issues in the past.
The problem is not Google's alone. Queries such as "buy percocet without a prescription" turned up similar results on Bing — Google's main competitor — as did other searches for illegal substances and for instructions on how to get fake passports. And just last week, Facebook released new guidelines explaining how it will crack down on gun sales on its social network, explicitly prohibiting posts in which users advertise that they can sell guns to other users without a background check.
In a statement, a YouTube spokeswoman pointed to the site's community guidelines, which prohibit videos promoting illegal content. Google's procedures are set up to respond to posts that users flag for promoting illegal content, and also works to identify when content may not be appropriate for advertisements — to ensure that companies don't have their brand names show up next to something they don't support.
“We take user safety seriously and have Guidelines that prohibit any content encouraging dangerous, illegal activities," the spokeswoman said in a statement. "This includes content promoting 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. 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.”
But, these companies say, while they don't want their platforms to be used to promote illegal activity, they are also hesitant to begin censoring any content on their sites outright.
But Galvin says Google could do more, including by flagging key search terms such as "buy prescription drugs without a prescription" for closer review.
"Google deserves credit for what they do ... but they seem to want no blame for what they don't do," he said. "There are steps they could take, to use those vaunted analytics to isolate and identify terms to be reviewed. It would be a small percentage of overall videos, but they could do a lot of good."
Hemanshu Nigam, founder of the online safety and security firm SSP Blue, said that Google has an opportunity here to take this problem head-on and say firmly that it will work to screen out such questionable content before it's published on its platform. Free-speech issues are important, he said, but as a private company, Google has both the right and technical capability to make stronger censorship decisions about its platform.
Google, he said, is more than technically capable of finding and reviewing content that promotes illegal activity — after all, it indexes sites and videos well enough to display the search results. He encouraged Google to lead the way in addressing this conversation, by framing the debate around legality rather than a right to free expression.
"When you're talking about illegal content versus legal content, it's not a question of neutral," he said. "It's a question of choice."