War on Drugs

State Attorneys General to Google: Censor or Be Censored


Gayle Laakmann/Technologywoman.com

If you have to ask Google how to rob a house or become a drug dealer, you probably aren't going to make a terribly superb robber or drug dealer. In other words: Search engine inquiries into how to start a life of crime are probably harmless. But that's not really the point—were eHow and Ask.com the premier way of learning the drug trade, it still wouldn't make it right for the government to intervene. The government is intervening, however, with state attorney generals (AGs) pressuring Google to obscure sites that promote illegal activities or sell "dangerous" or illegal materials.

In a December 2013 letter, published by The Washington Post this week, attorneys general from 23 states and Puerto Rico "expressed concerns" about "Google's monetization of dangerous and illegal content," "the promotion of illegal and prescription free drugs," and general intellectual property violations on the Internet. The gang proposed a meeting in Denver in January, to which Google agreed.

A subsequent letter from the AGs, sent in February, calls the meeting a "valuable first step" but stresses that "much work remains to be done." Summarizing requests made at the meeting, the AGs ask Google to enhance content screening systems and place increased "human scrutiny" on content uploaded to YouTube and Google Drive; to delist sites that sell illegal drugs or any other illegal materials, and prevent these sites from using paid search or ads; and to provide "swift responses" to law enforcement officials about this content.

"What can Google do to encourage a culture worthy of its 'Don't be evil' motto?" they ask. Oh, I don't know, perhaps not censor the Internet based on the whims of a group of paternalistic prosecutors or use its massive reach to be a spy for the state?

Google, to its credit, wanted no part of the AGs' evil schemes. The company explained that it already has initiatives in place to identify and address copyright violations or prohibited content, and it has (since 2010) barred illegal pharmacies from placing paid ads via Google.

It also, at the request of the AGs, recently removed more than 1,200 phrases from its autocomplete predictions, such as "how to become a drug dealer," "how to get away with robbing a house," and "how to buy slaves" (note that these search terms are still perfectly possible, you'll just have to type the whole phrase yourself). Additionally, it added hundreds of search terms (such as "buy foreign women") to a list of things that will not return ads on YouTube and AdWord.

However, Google patiently explained to the AGs, it does not own or run everything on the Internet nor have a desire to be censor in chief (emphasis mine):

In contrast to our hosted platforms, our search index reflects existing content on the web, and the sites linked in Google search results are created and controlled by those sites' webmasters, not Google. Given the First Amendment and free-expression issues at play, search is the least restrictive of our services….It is our firm belief that Google should not be the arbiter of what is and is not legal on the web.

Hell yeah. And Google also rejected (as it has many times before) the idea that it should remove entire sites from search results for copyright violations. Whole-site removal "sends the wrong message internationally, by favoring over-inclusive private censorship over the rule of law," it said. "This would jeopardize free speech principles and the free flow of information online globally and in contexts far removed from copyright."

The state AGs aren't satisfied, of course. If Google won't fall in line, they've threatened to pursue legal action, according to The Washington Post. Jim Hood, Mississippi AG and the one leading this crusade, explained to the Post that they were merely "trying to make (Google) do right."