February 22, 2018

Grassley, Feinstein, Colleagues Urge Tech Companies to Clamp Down on Illegal Online Drug Sales and Advertising

WASHINGTON – Senators Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the chair and co-chair of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, alongside Senators Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), John Kennedy (R-La.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) recently wrote to four tech companies urging action to reduce illegal online drug sales and advertising.
 
The group of senators wrote to Google, Microsoft, Yahoo and Pinterest expressing concern about the role that the internet plays in facilitating the deadly drug trade. Each platform has policies and restrictions against illegitimate online pharmacies and online advertisements for the sale of illegal controlled substances, including fentanyl—among the chief drugs contributing to the lethality of America’s opioid crisis.
 
“Despite their efforts to forbid it, some of the most popular websites are being used for the illicit sale of narcotics. It’s imperative that we all work collaboratively to combat the opioid epidemic. One of the ways to do this is to limit online access to illicit narcotics like fentanyl. These online companies can help limit illegal sales by preventing users from creating online black markets to peddle their poison,” Grassley said. “I appreciate any efforts by the private sector to help tackle this problem, and I’m committed to finding new ways to help stem the tide in our nation’s opioid crisis.”
 
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.
 
Links to the senators’ four letters with attachments follows.
-        Letter to Google
-        Letter to Microsoft
-        Letter to Pinterest
-        Letter to Yahoo
 
Full text of the senators’ letters without attachments follows.
 
Mr. Sundar Pichai
Chief Executive Officer
Google
1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043
 
Dear Mr. Pichai:
           
            We are writing to express our deep concern about the role that internet search engines, such as Google, may play in facilitating the deadly drug trade. As such, we request that Google consider removing from its platform content that advertises the use of or enables the sale of illicit narcotics, including the sale of prescription drugs without a valid prescription. We further request that Google consider action to ensure that future, similar content is banned.
 
We understand that “Google restricts the promotion of online pharmacies,” and that it bans “the promotion of substances that alter mental state for the purpose of recreation or otherwise induce “highs;” products or services marketed as facilitating recreational drug use; and the promotion of instructional content about producing, purchasing, or using recreational drugs.”[1]
 
Despite this, the online sale of illicit narcotics, including the sale of prescription drugs without a valid prescription, is easily facilitated through the search engines of Google and other providers, as evidenced by the attachments to this letter and in a recent United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report.[2] Additionally, in 2015, the Global Drug Survey, which included 100,000 participants worldwide, found that nearly 12,000 respondents had purchased drugs online from conventional, surface websites as well as from “darknet” sites.[3]
 
As you may be aware, the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act, which was enacted in 2008, requires at least one in-person consultation with a physician in order to obtain a valid prescription to purchase a controlled substance through an online pharmacy. This law further requires all online pharmacies to register with the Drug Enforcement Administration, and to post basic information about their location, pharmacist in charge, and any physician with whom they are affiliated. Unfortunately, it appears that some of the pharmacies using Google to advertise their services are not in compliance with this law.
 
We recognize that not all purchases of illicit narcotics, to include prescription drugs without a valid prescription, are facilitated by Google’s platform. However, Google can play a role in helping to stem the tide of overdose deaths associated with illicit drug use by ensuring its users cannot purchase such products using its platform. To that end, we request that you consider:
 
·       ensuring that when users search for medicines on your platform, they are automatically directed to websites connected to legal and legitimate pharmacies that require a valid prescription as a condition of sale;
 
·       disabling the ability to search for illicit drugs through your platform;
 
·       reporting to law enforcement authorities when Google receives information indicating that a company is advertising the use of or attempting to sell illicit narcotics or prescription drugs without a valid prescription online, and provide the relevant IP information;
 
·       establishing a 24/7 telephone point of contact whom law enforcement can directly communicate with regarding these instances (instead of an email point of contact); and
 
·       incorporating training for Google security reviewers (or their appropriate equivalent) to enable them to better recognize the companies purchasing domains through your search engine that promote or facilitate the online sale of illicit drugs and/or prescription drugs without a valid prescription.
 
Drug overdose deaths claimed the lives of nearly 64,000 Americans in 2016.[4]  Based on the attachments and the data above, a portion of these substances may have been purchased via the internet, facilitated by illegitimate pharmacies exploiting online search engines. We cannot turn a blind eye to this activity.
 
We strongly request that you consider taking action. Thank you for your consideration of this very serious matter. We look forward to your reply. 
 
Sincerely,
 
 
Mr. Satya Nadella
Chief Executive Officer
Microsoft
1 Microsoft Way
Redmond, WA 98052
 
Dear Mr. Nadella:
           
            We are writing to express our deep concern about the role that internet search engines, such as Bing, may play in facilitating the deadly drug trade. As such, we request that Bing consider removing from its platform content that advertises the use of or enables the sale of illicit narcotics, including the sale of prescription drugs without a valid prescription. We further request that Bing consider action to ensure that future, similar content is banned.
 
We understand it is Bing’s policy to require advertisers for pharmacy products to “follow all applicable regulatory policies and local laws, including maintaining up-to-date certification for the markets in which they advertise, as applicable” and to disallow advertisements for “drugs and related paraphernalia.”[5]
 
Despite this, the online sale of illicit narcotics, including the sale of prescription drugs without a valid prescription, is easily facilitated through the search engines of Bing and other providers, as evidenced by the attachments to this letter and in a recent United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report.[6] Additionally, in 2015, the Global Drug Survey, which included 100,000 participants worldwide, found that nearly 12,000 respondents had purchased drugs online, from conventional, surface websites, as well as from “darknet” sites.[7]
 
As you may be aware, the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act, which was enacted in 2008, requires at least one in-person consultation with a physician in order to obtain a valid prescription to purchase a controlled substance through an online pharmacy. This law further requires all online pharmacies to register with the Drug Enforcement Administration, and to post basic information about their location, pharmacist in charge, and any physician with whom they are affiliated. Unfortunately, it appears that some of the pharmacies using Bing to advertise their services are not in compliance with this law.
 
We recognize that not all purchases of illicit narcotics, to include prescription drugs without a valid prescription, are facilitated by Bing’s platform. However, Bing can play a role in helping to stem the tide of overdose deaths associated with illicit drug use by ensuring its users cannot purchase such products using its platform. To that end, we request that you consider:
 
·       ensuring that when users search for medicines on your platform, they are automatically directed to websites connected to legal and legitimate pharmacies that require a valid prescription as a condition of sale;
 
·       disabling the ability to search for illicit drugs through your platform;
 
·       reporting to law enforcement authorities when Bing receives information indicating that a company is advertising the use of or attempting to sell illicit narcotics or prescription drugs without a valid prescription online, and provide the relevant IP information;
 
·       establishing a 24/7 telephone point of contact whom law enforcement can directly communicate with regarding these instances (instead of an email point of contact); and
 
·       incorporating training for Bing security reviewers (or their appropriate equivalent) to enable them to better recognize the companies purchasing domains through your search engine that promote or facilitate the online sale of illicit drugs and/or prescription drugs without a valid prescription.
            Drug overdose deaths claimed the lives of nearly 64,000 Americans in 2016.[8]  Based on the attachments and the data above, a portion of these substances may have been purchased via the internet, facilitated by illegitimate pharmacies exploiting online search engines.  We cannot turn a blind eye to this activity.
 
We strongly request that you consider taking action.  Thank you for your consideration of this very serious matter. We look forward to your reply. 
 
Sincerely,
 
 
Mr. Ben Silbermann
Chief Executive Officer and Co-Founder
Pinterest
808 Brannan Street
San Francisco, CA 94104
 
Dear Mr. Silbermann:
           
            We are writing to express our deep concern about the role that online marketplaces, such as Pinterest, may play in facilitating the deadly drug trade. As such, we request that Pinterest consider removing from its platform content that advertises the use of or enables the sale of illicit narcotics, including the sale of prescription drugs without a valid prescription. We further request that Pinterest consider action to ensure that future, similar content is banned.
 
We understand that it is Pinterest’s policy to disallow “anything that promotes online pharmacies, clinical trial recruitment, [or] the sale of prescription drugs (for humans or pets)” on its platform, and to disallow ads that “promote the sale or use of illegal or recreational drugs. This includes any drug paraphernalia, images of or informational material about illegal or recreational substances, and products to cheat drug tests.”[9]
 
Despite this, the online sale of illicit narcotics, including the sale of prescription drugs without a valid prescription, is easily facilitated through Pinterest and other providers, as evidenced by the attachments to this letter and in a recent United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report.[10] Additionally, in 2015, the Global Drug Survey, which included 100,000 participants worldwide, found that nearly 12,000 respondents had purchased drugs online, from conventional, surface websites, as well as from “darknet” sites.[11]
 
As you may be aware, the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act, which was enacted in 2008, requires at least one in-person consultation with a physician in order to obtain a valid prescription to purchase a controlled substance through an online pharmacy. This law further requires all online pharmacies to register with the Drug Enforcement Administration, and to post basic information about their location, pharmacist in charge, and any physician with whom they are affiliated. Unfortunately, it appears that some of the pharmacies using Pinterest to advertise their services are not in compliance with this law.
 
We recognize that not all purchases of illicit narcotics, to include prescription drugs without a valid prescription, are facilitated by Pinterest. However, Pinterest can play a role in helping to stem the tide of overdose deaths associated with illicit drug use by ensuring its users cannot purchase such products using its platform. To that end, we request that you consider:
 
·       ensuring that when users search for medicines on your platform, they are automatically directed to websites connected to legal and legitimate pharmacies that require a valid prescription as a condition of sale;
 
·       disabling the ability to search for illicit drugs through your platform;
 
·       reporting to law enforcement authorities when Pinterest receives information indicating that a company is advertising the use of or attempting to sell illicit narcotics or prescription drugs without a valid prescription online, and provide the relevant IP information;
 
·       establishing a 24/7 telephone point of contact whom law enforcement can directly communicate with regarding these instances (instead of an email point of contact); and
 
·       incorporating training for Pinterest security reviewers (or their appropriate equivalent) to enable them to better recognize the companies purchasing domains through your search engine that promote or facilitate the online sale of illicit drugs and/or prescription drugs without a valid prescription.
           
Drug overdose deaths claimed the lives of nearly 64,000 Americans in 2016.[12]  Based on the attachments and the data above, a portion of these substances may have been purchased via the internet, facilitated by illegitimate pharmacies exploiting online marketplaces. We cannot turn a blind eye to this activity.
 
We strongly request that you consider taking action.  Thank you for your consideration of this very serious matter. We look forward to your reply. 
 
Sincerely,
 
 
Chief Executive Officer
Yahoo
701 1st Ave
Sunnyvale, CA 94089
 
Dear Ms. Mayer:
           
            We are writing to express our deep concern about the role that internet search engines, such as Yahoo, may play in facilitating the deadly drug trade. As such, we request that Yahoo consider removing from its platform content that advertises the use of or enables the sale of illicit narcotics, including the sale of prescription drugs without a valid prescription. We further request that Yahoo consider action to ensure that future, similar content is banned.
 
We understand it is Yahoo’s policy that “pharmacies must be well-known, reputable companies that require an actual doctor's prescription to purchase medication, and be approved by VIPPS, or through other NABP certification programs” in order to advertise on its platform.[13] We also understand that it is Yahoo’s policy to disallow advertisements for “any recreational drugs or drug paraphernalia, or products and services designed to beat drug tests. This includes drugs which may be legal or decriminalized in some regions, such as marijuana.”[14]
 
Despite this, the online sale of illicit narcotics, including the sale of prescription drugs without a valid prescription, is easily facilitated through the search engines of Yahoo and other providers, as evidenced by the attachments to this letter and in a recent United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations report.[15] Additionally, in 2015, the Global Drug Survey, which included 100,000 participants worldwide, found that nearly 12,000 respondents had purchased drugs online, from conventional, surface websites, as well as from “darknet” sites.[16]
 
As you may be aware, the Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act, which was enacted in 2008, requires at least one in-person consultation with a physician in order to obtain a valid prescription to purchase a controlled substance through an online pharmacy. This law further requires all online pharmacies to register with the Drug Enforcement Administration, and to post basic information about their location, pharmacist in charge, and any physician with whom they are affiliated. Unfortunately, it appears that some of the pharmacies using Yahoo to advertise their services are not in compliance with this law.
 
We recognize that not all purchases of illicit narcotics, to include prescription drugs without a valid prescription, are facilitated by Yahoo’s platform. However, Yahoo can play a role in helping to stem the tide of overdose deaths associated with illicit drug use by ensuring its users cannot purchase such products using its platform. To that end, we request that you consider:
 
·       ensuring that when users search for medicines on your platform, they are automatically directed to websites connected to legal and legitimate pharmacies that require a valid prescription as a condition of sale;
 
·       disabling the ability to search for illicit drugs through your platform;
 
·       reporting to law enforcement authorities when Yahoo receives information indicating that a company is advertising the use of or attempting to sell illicit narcotics or prescription drugs without a valid prescription online, and provide the relevant IP information;
 
·       establishing a 24/7 telephone point of contact whom law enforcement can directly communicate with regarding these instances (instead of an email point of contact); and
 
·       incorporating training for Yahoo security reviewers (or their appropriate equivalent) to enable them to better recognize the companies purchasing domains through your search engine that promote or facilitate the online sale of illicit drugs and/or prescription drugs without a valid prescription.
 
            Drug overdose deaths claimed the lives of nearly 64,000 Americans in 2016.[17]  Based on the attachments and the data above, a portion of these substances may have been purchased via the internet, facilitated by illegitimate pharmacies exploiting online search engines. We cannot turn a blind eye to this activity.
 
We strongly request that you consider taking action.  Thank you for your consideration of this very serious matter. We look forward to your reply. 
 
Sincerely,
 
-30-



[1] Google. Advertising policies help, healthcare and medicine. Available: https://support.google.com/adwordspolicy/answer/176031?hl=en Google. Advertising policies help, dangerous products or services. Available: https://support.google.com/adwordspolicy/answer/6014299?hl=en&ref_topic=1626336
[2]United States Senate, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. (January 25, 2018). “Combatting the opioid crisis: Exploiting vulnerabilities in international mail.” P. 26. Available: file:///C:/Users/kl49473/Downloads/Combatting%20the%20Opioid%20Crisis%20-%20Exploiting%20Vulnerabilities%20in%20International%20Mail1%20(3).pdf 
[3] Pegg, D. (June 7, 2015). “Global Drug Survey 2015 shows more people buying online than ever before.” The Guardian. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/society/datablog/2015/jun/08/global-drug-survey-2015-buy-online-darknet-silk-road  
[4] Hedegaard H., Warner M., Miniño A.M. (2017) Drug overdose deaths in the United States, 1999–2016. NCHS Data Brief, No 294. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Available: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db294.pdf 
[6]United States Senate, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. (January 25, 2018). “Combatting the opioid crisis: Exploiting vulnerabilities in international mail.” P. 26. Available: file:///C:/Users/kl49473/Downloads/Combatting%20the%20Opioid%20Crisis%20-%20Exploiting%20Vulnerabilities%20in%20International%20Mail1%20(3).pdf 
[7] Pegg, D. (June 7, 2015). “Global Drug Survey 2015 shows more people buying online than ever before.” The Guardian. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/society/datablog/2015/jun/08/global-drug-survey-2015-buy-online-darknet-silk-road  
[8] Hedegaard H., Warner M., Miniño A.M. (2017) Drug overdose deaths in the United States, 1999–2016. NCHS Data Brief, No 294. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Available: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db294.pdf 
[9] Pinterest. Pinterest advertising guidelines. Available: https://policy.pinterest.com/en/advertising-guidelines
[10]United States Senate, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. (January 25, 2018). “Combatting the opioid crisis: Exploiting vulnerabilities in international mail.” P. 26. Available: file:///C:/Users/kl49473/Downloads/Combatting%20the%20Opioid%20Crisis%20-%20Exploiting%20Vulnerabilities%20in%20International%20Mail1%20(3).pdf 
[11] Pegg, D. (June 7, 2015). “Global Drug Survey 2015 shows more people buying online than ever before.” The Guardian. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/society/datablog/2015/jun/08/global-drug-survey-2015-buy-online-darknet-silk-road  
[12] Hedegaard H., Warner M., Miniño A.M. (2017) Drug overdose deaths in the United States, 1999–2016. NCHS Data Brief, No 294. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Available: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db294.pdf 
[15]United States Senate, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. (January 25, 2018). “Combatting the opioid crisis: Exploiting vulnerabilities in international mail.” P. 26. Available: file:///C:/Users/kl49473/Downloads/Combatting%20the%20Opioid%20Crisis%20-%20Exploiting%20Vulnerabilities%20in%20International%20Mail1%20(3).pdf 
[16] Pegg, D. (June 7, 2015). “Global Drug Survey 2015 shows more people buying online than ever before.” The Guardian. Available: https://www.theguardian.com/society/datablog/2015/jun/08/global-drug-survey-2015-buy-online-darknet-silk-road  
[17] Hedegaard H., Warner M., Miniño A.M. (2017) Drug overdose deaths in the United States, 1999–2016. NCHS Data Brief, No 294. Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics. Available: https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db294.pdf