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Combatting Illegal Online Opioid Sales in the COVID-19 Era

U.S. News & World Report’s June 23 article, “The Hidden Deaths of COVID-19”, details how the current novel coronavirus pandemic could cause a spike in opioid overdoses, by denying those most at risk access to support meetings or urgent medical care. It underscores that, even as we focus on mitigating this current pandemic, we cannot let up on efforts to combat the ongoing epidemic of opioid misuse and overdose.

That includes cracking down on online drug peddlers who put profits before safety, and who seek to use the internet to hide in the shadows. A pilot program announced this spring provides a framework for collaboration between Verisign, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to target websites illegally offering opioids for sale.

Under the pilot, the FDA will notify internet registries that are participating in the pilot when the agency sends a warning letter to a registrar and/or website operator, and they do not respond adequately within the required timeframe. If the illegal conduct continues, upon receipt of FDA’s notification and request for potential technical action, Verisign may notify the registrar for the domain name in question. If an adequate and timely response is not received from the registrar, Verisign may then take appropriate action. 

The results of the pilot program will be studied to help inform whether the program has been effective as a potential solution to dealing with the illegal sale of unapproved opioids online. The protocols and experiences of this opioid-specific pilot program can also translate to other fronts in our efforts against DNS abuse. For example, Verisign is already working with law enforcement to apply a similar framework to combat domain name abuse related to scams that seek to exploit the COVID-19 crisis. In recent months, we’ve taken significant steps to address the impact of COVID-19 and to ensure that domain name registrants are able to maintain operations during these unprecedented times. 

The race to defeat the COVID-19 virus is well under way, and we all look forward to advances in treatment and hopefully a vaccine. But there is no vaccine for the scourge of opioid abuse. That fight is a marathon, not a sprint, requiring a full array of education and enforcement efforts and coordination, like this pilot program. Verisign is committed to doing its part.

To learn more information on the pilot program, click here. For information on the steps Verisign is taking in response to the COVID-19 crisis, please go to our previous blog posts, and come back here for further updates.