Surprise, surprise…Google is once again in the spotlight for its role in linking to websites that promote illegal activities. In a statement released Thursday, Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood charged that the search giant facilitates commerce in counterfeit goods and drugs online. Hood is co-chair of the National Association of Attorney General’s intellectual property committee. In the press release issued by his office, he outlined the issues:
…Google’s search algorithm often leads to sites known to sell counterfeit goods being at the top of the Google search results. Additionally, attorneys general are concerned that some of the sites selling counterfeit goods are advertising with Google.
“On every check we have made, Google’s search engine gave us easy access to illegal goods including websites which offer dangerous drugs without a prescription, counterfeit goods of every description, and infringing copies of movies, music, software and games,” said Attorney General Hood. “This behavior means that Google is putting consumers at risk and facilitating wrongdoing, all while profiting handsomely from illegal behavior.”
Hood sent a letter to Google’s Chief Executive Officer Larry Page inviting him to attend a national meeting of the attorneys general on June 18 in Boston to address the group’s concerns, categorized as follows:
- Content Removal – Google claims to only remove content from its search results in a narrow set of circumstances. The phrase “narrow set of circumstances” seems misleading. Google’s own policies on child exploitation state, “we block search results that lead to child pornography. This is a legal requirement and the right thing to do.” However, Google also removes other types of content. For instance, Google removes content from its German portal that glorifies the Nazi party on google.de or insults religion on google.co.in in India. Why will Google not remove websites or de-index known websites that purport to sell prescription drugs without a prescription or provide pirated content? Content removal can be done, but it appears Google is unwilling to remove content related to the purchase of prescription drugs without a prescription or the downloading of pirated movies and songs.
- Auto Complete – Google claims in its April 19th letter that “the predictions that appear in auto complete are an algorithmic reflection of query terms that are popular with our users and on the internet. Google does not manually select these terms or determine what queries are considered related to each other.” This statement is misleading. For example, a user cannot type in “free child” and receive an auto complete of the words “porn” or “pornography.” Google blocks an auto complete of the phrase “free child porn.” However, the phrase “buy oxycodone online” is autocompleted with the words “no prescription cod.” Google states in its April 19th letter that removing generic terms such as “prescription” or “online” is vastly overbroad. The issue is not about these words as stand-alone search terms, but phrases that facilitate known illegal behavior. For example, if you type in “buy oxycod,” the auto complete will provide “buy oxycodone online no prescription cod” as one of the choices. Another example is typing in “watch movies free so” and auto complete supplies “watch movies free solar.” Solarmovie is a known rogue website. The suggested search term by Google, “solar,” results in extensive sites containing infringing content on the first page of results. Can Google not remove phrases from auto complete such as “buy oxycodone online no prescription cod” or “watch movies free solar” without removing stand-alone terms?
- Digital Millennium Copyright Act Notices – Google has repeatedly stated that “sites with high numbers of removal notices may appear lower in our results.” However, websites that continue to appear very prominently in Google search results are the same websites highly listed on Google’s Transparency Report. For example, single searches for a popular new DVD released film results in the website torrentz.eu on the first hit of the search. Torrentz.eu has received over 2,103,239 URL removal requests according to Google’s Transparency Report.
- Role of search engines in curbing sale of counterfeit pharmaceuticals – Google does not mention the role of “search” at all in response to this question implying that search is not an issue of concern despite what is mentioned above. Moreover, Google does not mention its platform YouTube and the role of search and advertising on YouTube in promoting illegal activities. For example, users can search for and view videos purporting to sell prescription drugs without a prescription and other illegal activities all while viewing paid advertisements. What steps is Google taking to address advertising in conjunction with illicit videos on YouTube?
If reading this triggers a sense of deja vu, don’t worry– you’re not crazy. Less than 2 years ago, in August of 2011, Google agreed to a 500 million dollar settlement with the U.S. Justice Department over online advertisements for illegal Canadian pharmacies. According to the NY Times:
Google entered into a nonprosecution agreement with the government last week over the use of its AdWords program by Canadian pharmacies that helped them sell prescription drugs in the United States in violation of a federal law, 21 U.S.C. § 331(a). That law prohibits causing the “introduction or delivery for introduction into interstate commerce of any food, drug, device, tobacco product, or cosmetic that is adulterated or misbranded.
In addition to its role facilitating the trafficking of illegal and counterfeit drugs, Google’s ongoing relationship to illegal pirate movie sites has also been well established. Not only does the search giant continue to feature pirate websites high in its search results, but its YouTube and Blogger sites have also become efficient tools in online theft’s infrastructure.
In his statement Mr. Hood pointed out Google’s reluctance to regulate its own offerings and asked, as so many have before him, why is it that Google manages to block certain auto-complete phrases related to child porn or the Nazi party (on their German portal Google.de) but fails do so when it comes to other illegal, counterfeit content online?
The question of what companies like Google can and/or should do when it comes to illegal or harmful content was brought into sharp relief recently when another Silicon Valley giant, Facebook, was scrutinized for its refusal to act against pages that promoted misogynist and violent “hate speech” against women.
The NY Times featured a piece By Tanzina Vega and Leslie Kaufman “The Distasteful Side of Social Media Puts Advertisers on Their Guard” that examined the balance between free speech and civic responsibility. They aptly noted: “With the money, they are discovering, comes responsibility,” According to the story, YouTube officials claim to be pro-active when it comes to controlling where advertising appears:
YouTube also has mechanisms that give advertisers some control over where their brands appear. “When we become aware of ads that are showing against sensitive content, we immediately remove them,” Lucas Watson, the company’s vice president for video online global sales, wrote in an e-mail. “We also give advertisers control to target specific content, and they can choose to block ads against certain content categories or individual videos.”
The key here is “when we become aware.” The real question for YouTube and Google’s other services (search, Blogger, AdSense) is why isn’t the company pro-active to prevent these abuses rather than reactive? Preventing abuse of its products is not censorship; it’s the responsible thing to do.
Google’s reluctance to take decisive action seems to demonstrate that despite half-billion dollar fines and ongoing scrutiny from governments around the world, profits remain paramount, no matter the source.
Unfortunately, these days it seems that Google’s not alone in looking the other way. Just last month shipping giant UPS had to cough up a 40 million dollar settlement for knowingly distributing shipments for illegal online pharmacies.
Enabling trafficking in illegal products is illegal. The time for Google to clean house is long overdue. The question is, will it do so voluntarily or will it have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the table? If past is prologue then my guess is that it will be the latter.