Google Defends Efforts Against Rogue Pharmacies

Under fire from law enforcement officials, Google insists it has been making progress in its effort to deny advertising to rogue pharmacies.
Google I/O: 10 Key Developments
Google I/O: 10 Key Developments
(click image for larger view and for slideshow)
From 2003 through 2009, Google helped pharmacies in Canada place online ads through its AdWords system to sell pharmaceuticals to U.S. consumers. But upon becoming involved in an FDA-backed investigation into the unlawful sale of prescription drugs online, Google began tightening its AdWords oversight. It ultimately ended up agreeing to pay $500 million in 2011 to settle charges that it sold hundreds of millions of dollars worth of online ads to Canadian pharmacies that were violating U.S. law.

Since then, Google has worked with government agencies and business groups to limit the ability of rogue pharmacies to market to online consumers, just as it has also been doing to combat child exploitation online.

But last month Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page inviting him to a June 18 meeting of attorneys general to address ongoing concerns about the presence of unlawful content in Google search results. The May 21 letter is one of several sent to Google by Hood and other state authorities expressing dissatisfaction with "Google's lack of meaningful action" in dealing with unlawful content in its search results and its other services.

[ Read about Google's high-flying experiment to improve Internet access: Google Balloon Project: Crazy Like a Loon. ]

Hood in a statement noted that tests of Google search "gave us easy access to illegal goods," thereby endangering consumers and aiding wrongdoing while rewarding Google financially.

One particular issue raised by Hood is the way Google's auto-complete search suggestions work. Although Google does not offer search suggestions for some searches of obviously unlawful intent, the company does present some questionable suggestions. One example pointed out by Hood's office is the search "buy oxycod," which can produce the auto-complete suggestion "buy oxycodone online no prescription cod" as a suggested search.

Another issue is YouTube, which apparently has become a popular way to promote rogue pharmacies.

On Tuesday, Google detailed some of the steps it has been taking to curtail the unlawful sale of pharmaceuticals online. Google legal director Adam Barea said in a blog post that the company has been working with industry and government partners to hinder the ability of rogue pharmacies to operate online.

"A variety of websites and Web services are refusing ads from suspected rogue pharmacies," said Barea. "Domain name registrars are removing suspect rogue pharmacies from their networks. Payment processors are blocking payments to these operators, and social networking sites are removing them from their systems too."

Google has been working with LegitScript, a company that verifies pharmacy legitimacy, and since 2010, Barea reports, the number of ads for illegal drugs and rogue pharmacies has decreased by 99.9%. To achieve that reduction, Google has had to block or reject over 3 million ads from suspected rogue pharmacies in the past two years.

The company is also working with Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies (CSIP), a non-profit group focused on fighting rogue pharmacies. Through a Google Grant, Google has funded a CSIP ad campaign to promote the LegitScript pharmacy verification tool through a sponsored link when Google users search for terms like "online pharmacy."

Nonetheless, rogue online pharmacies continue to look for ways to entice customers and Google acknowledges that it has further work to do. Barea says that because auto-complete suggestions are the product of a computer algorithm, the system might sometimes inadvertently point people toward rogue pharmacies. He adds that Google is currently looking into ways to deal with the issue.

He also says that YouTube was notified about the presence of videos that violated its policies earlier this month and took steps to remove them. YouTube will continue to do so, when it has been notified, he said.

Presumably, law enforcement officials would like Google to be more proactive, to prevent unlawful content from appearing in search results at all.

But Google is only willing to go so far. "Search results reflect the web and what's online -- the good and the bad," said Barea. "Filtering a website from search results won't remove it from the Web, or block other websites that link to that website. It's not Google's place to determine what content should be censored -- that responsibility belongs with the courts and the lawmakers."