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Google 'aiding and abetting' illegal online pharmacies

US state attorney general takes issue with auto-complete and ad policies

Google illegal online pharmacies 
Less than two years after Google's $500m pharmacy ad settlement with US authorities, the company's hands-off attitude to its auto-complete feature looks like it could land it in further hot water.

The feature predicts a user's 'most likely' search queries based on what they or other internet users have searched for in the past, but a group of US national attorneys general are concerned it can also push users to sites known to sell counterfeit goods.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, who leads the group, said Google's refusal to work with attorneys general would force him to subpoena its records and emails, and he encouraged his colleagues to do the same. 

“Google's lack of response leaves us no choice except to issue subpoenas to Google for possible violations of state consumer protection acts and other state and federal civil and criminal laws,” he said yesterday.

“Google is aiding and abetting criminal activity and putting consumers at risk. This is of grave concern to the chief law enforcement officers of this nation,” he told the National Association of Attorneys General 2013 Summer Meeting.

Attorney General Hood told his colleagues at the meeting he would provide the Department of Justice with evidence that Google autocomplete was assisting in the sale of prescription drugs without a prescription.

Google: We don't regulate autocomplete

Writing yesterday on Google's Public Policy Blog, the company's legal director Adam Barea said that apart from occasional tweaks to autocomplete to prevent shocking or offensive entries from being displayed, Google doesn't regulate its results.

“Because the feature is algorithmic, some autocomplete entries may include phrases that potentially relate to rogue pharmacies. We're evaluating how best to address this issue, have already started running tests on the subject, and always welcome feedback.”

Another concern voiced by Attorney General Hood was that sites selling counterfeit goods advertise with Google and he wants Google to “delist, or at least demote, from its search results rogue, serial pirating sites”.

And Google's extensive blog post, purportedly “an update on some of the ways we tackle the problem of rogue online pharmacies gaming our system”, highlighted its approach to ads.

“We have extremely stringent ads policies, and use sophisticated automated systems, along with some human review, to identify, block and remove ads suspected of linking to rogue pharmacies,” Barea said.

However, he added: “We do not remove content from search results except in narrow circumstances. It's not Google's place to determine what content should be censored - that responsibility belongs with the courts and the lawmakers.”

Just weeks earlier Google's YouTube site “was notified of a number of videos promoting pharmaceuticals that violated its guidelines, and immediately removed them”, Barea said.

Google's $500m pharmacy rule breach

Google's August 2011 settlement with the US Department of Justice saw the company agree to give up $500m generated from online ads and prescription drug sales from Canadian online pharmacies.

The deal was struck after Google accepted it had carried ads targeting US citizens from online Canadian pharmacies that illegally imported controlled and non-controlled prescription drugs.

Since then the company has worked hard to rehabilitate its image, joining forces with Microsoft and Yahoo last July to help tackle illegal online pharmacies by setting up the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies (CSIP) in conjunction with the US government.

Google also participated in last year's Operation Pangea V, a massive push against illegal online pharmacies spearheaded by Interpol, the World Customs Organisation and enforcement and regulatory agencies. The operation shut down some 18,000 websites and seized illicit medicines worth an estimated $10.5m.

19th June 2013

From: Regulatory

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