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Google profiting from illegal weapon sales

Google is profiting from the illegal online trade of weapons including stun guns and pepper sprays, which are being advertised and delivered to offenders in the UK.

Paid-for listings on its shopping service as well as ads on Google Search are promoting sellers on eBay and other sites who are offering to illegally sell and ship weapons to British consumers.

Electroshock weapons advertised by Google include a stun gun advertised as 950,000 volts – almost 20 times more powerful than Tasers used by police. The UK-based firm listing this product, DirectNine, did not respond to requests for comment.

The ads for the illegal weapons appeared in Google Search
Image: The ads for the illegal weapons appeared in Google Search. Sky News has blurred a legal ad.

Selling, buying or possessing pepper spray, stun guns or CS spray – tear gas – is illegal in the UK under firearms law, and carries a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison.

However the weapons are available freely in foreign countries and are being posted to consumers in the UK, most often by vendors using online shopping platforms such as eBay.

The majority of advertisements and listings which Sky News found on Google for illegal weapons linked back to products listed on eBay.

A spokesperson for the company told Sky News in a statement: “These items are banned from eBay’s platform in line with our Weapons Policy. We have removed the items and are taking enforcement action against the sellers.”

However a check on the site following this statement showed multiple listings for illegal weapons were still up.

Border Force has seized thousands of so-called “non-lethal firearms” which have been illegally imported into the UK since 2013.

Figures released by the agency suggest attempts to import the weapons are continuing to rise, reaching a record 2,082 individual weapons in 2018.

Although figures are only available for the first half of 2019, it was already the second busiest year for Border Force since records began.

Crime statistics recording the use of the weapons also suggest an enormous rise in their use by criminals, with a record number of offences recorded for the financial year ending in 2019.

In its statement to Sky News, the Home Office said: “The sale of weapons online is dangerous and illegal. We expect companies to go further and faster in reducing the risks their platforms post, which includes robust processes in place to swiftly remove illegal content.”

The department has announced it will be expanding the role of the communications regulator Ofcom to cover online harms, which include websites and e-commerce companies facilitating criminal activity.

Google Shopping features paid-for listings for pepper spray
Image: Google Shopping features paid-for listings for pepper spray

eBay’s spokesperson said: “We have no tolerance for unsafe or illegal products on our marketplaces, and it is required in our User Agreement that all sellers comply with the law.

“If a seller is found to be breaching our polices, we take action in the form of a warning, restriction, suspension or ban,” they added.

A spokesperson for Google told Sky News: “While we want Google Shopping to help connect people with advertisers and products, we have policies that determine which ads we do and don’t allow; and we require all advertisers to comply with local law.

“When we find products on Google Shopping in violation of our policies or the law, we act quickly to remove them,” they added.

Google said it uses a combination of algorithmic assessment and human review to monitor whether its listings contain illegal content.

Although the listings which Sky News sent to Google were taken down, it is unclear whether they would have been addressed by the web giant if Sky News had not identified them.

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