back to article Google was 'warned repeatedly' about rogue drug ads

Google was warned repeatedly by US state and Canadian regulators and independent watchdogs that it was running ads from online pharmacies that were breaking US laws, according to a report citing interviews with those involved in the situation, as well as public documents. The Wall Street Journal reports that federal …


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  1. Turtle


    "It’s been an ongoing, escalating cat-and-mouse game – as we and others build new safeguards and guidelines, rogue online pharmacies always try new tactics to get around those protections and illegally sell drugs on the web," wrote Google lawyer Michael Zwibelman.

    Except in this case, the cat decided to be deaf, dumb, and blind. Well isn't that why Google's slogan is "See no evil"?

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Not necessarily

      Until the investigation is complete you cannot say if the cat is deaf, dumb and blind or it is a simple case of "we will not tell you how our ad-matching algorithm and search ranking algorithms work".

      Reason - on a search for drugs you get both pharma peddlers and the ambulance chasers. Same on ads. Cutting the latter by mistake is probably more costly than allowing the former through. At least in the United States of Lawsuits.

      1. JohnG

        We're too big

        it isn't a case of "we will not tell you how our ad-matching algorithm and search ranking algorithms work" - it's closer to "We're too big to bother checking to see if we are operating within every little piece of legislation - laws are for little people"

  2. Dave Bell

    Looks awkward

    What puzzles me a little is the size of the business, and the existence of so many organisations able to detect illegal ads, yet an apparent lack of enforcement action.

    I think there's more to this than is apparent.

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Now I get it

    I always suspected the idiots who defended Gurgle (GAsses?) in these forums were high on something stronger that just Google's kool-aid.

    Now it all makes sense.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      Hush and pass me my crack pipe!

  4. Mage Silver badge


    What about all the scareware ads they server too?

    They are arrogant and irresponsible.

  5. Destroy All Monsters Silver badge
    Big Brother

    A clear example of government's looting of deep pockets.

    Over the years, Google has accepted some advertising from some of these so-called rogue elements. In a free market, they would be perfectly legitimate advertisers. Google makes no guarantee of the exact nature of the goods and services of all those who choose to advertise on its network. It has some degree of interest in quality control, of course, but if the customers are buying and happy, what could be the problem?

    Well, the medical cartel, of course, and it asked for the Justice Department to intervene. As of this writing, Google is assuming that it is going to be in hot water very soon. Its recent report to stockholders says that it has put half a billion dollars in escrow to deal with the Justice Department investigation. The presumption here is that Google is going to be held liable for permitting ads to run from market-based drug sellers.

    The only way to maintain a cartel is through government regulations, and this is what the pharmacy industry has long relied upon, much to the detriment of consumer well-being. The attempt to crack down on free-market advertising of prescription drugs is all about protecting an industry from competition, and has nothing at all to do with protecting the consumer.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      No it's NOT

      It's about protecting the public from overmedicating and treating themselves for diseases they don't have - after matching their supposed "symptoms" to stuff they found, most likely, using Google.

    2. Justin Clements

      Dont be daft

      It's very clear that the Federal authorities have been asking Google to sort the problem out for 10 years, and they have finally lost patience with the whole thing.

      Hence the fines.

      It's not about a free market at the end of the day, this is about the illegal sale of medicinal drugs. At the end of the day, companies with very little pharmacology experience and qualifications should not be selling pharmaceuticals.

      Google were repeatedly warned, and didn't take it very seriously. And for that they deserve a $500m fine, just like Yahoo and Microsoft by the sounds of it.

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward


      The attempts to crack down on free-market advertising of medicines in 1906[1] and 1938[2] was all about protecting the industry from deceptive sales practices of the patent medicine industry.

      Prior to those acts, your precious free-market was killing people.

      As for the notion that "[t]he only way to maintain a cartel is through government regulations", perhaps you'ld like to discuss exactly how a national government is the only way to maintain an international cartel.

      Best not to quote Lew Rockwell, a man who has issues with the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The pair of you are stuck in the 1850s.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "Fire the Editor" being a reference to myself ...

      [1] Pure Food and Drug Act, 1906

      [2] Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 1938

  6. Joey


    Why don't they go after the credit card companies who process payments for these crooks?

    1. Pseu Donyme


      This seemed easy enough to arrange with on-line gambling. While they are at it they might include other spamvertised stuff too. Would not seem too difficult to have a handful of government agents to be assigned to ordering a sample, then tracing the path the money took and terminating the seller's account and confiscating the money.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Hitler was repeatedly warned about Poland as well. Did about as much good.


  8. Juan Inamillion
    Thumb Up

    @A clear example of government's looting of deep pockets.

    And there you have it.

    Well done sir.

  9. Rob 5

    Pharmacists, cartels, etc.

    Destroy All Monsters makes a very valid point about the rent-seeking aspects of the pharma industries in the USA. I think the reason his post met with a poor reception is that people don't understand the scale of the differences between pharmacists in the UK and the USA.

    In the UK, pharmacists still add value and provide customers with genuine services - from keeping an eye on prescriptions and raising a red flag over potentially problematic combinations of meds, through giving basic medical advice, to pointing out OTC alternatives that are cheaper than even the patient's £8 (or whatever it is these days, it's been a few years) for an NHS prescription.

    In the US, it's nothing like that. Your pharmacist is a glorified supply clerk, whose main expertise is with health insurance billing systems and calculating co-pays. Most people never even see an independent local pharmacist, instead going to WalMart or a local supermarket chain, and any "medical advice" is limited to reading out the directions on the label in a bored monotone, so that everybody else in the queue knows what you've been prescribed.

    It's this latter business model that the legal action seeks to protect.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Not my experience

      My experience of both Rite Aid and CVS has been that asking to speak to the pharmacist ... gets you a conversation with someone other than a sales assistant.

      I can't help thinking the issues you have with the US are a reflection of whichever Bumfuck you live in, and not the US as a whole.

  10. Anonymous Coward

    'warned repeatedly' about rogue drug ad...blah blah

    Can I buy medicinal marijuana legally (according to US state and Canadian auforities) online yet and have it delivered via international post already or do i still have to move to California USA for that privelige?

    - my coat is the green coloured one

  11. Scarcrux

    SEC is a Joke

    Where are the massive fines and criminal investigations against the fraudulent finance companies responsible for the US mortgage crisis that directly and indirectly affected billions of people worldwide?

    Those criminal bankers scammed their own customers by selling short when they knew the shitstorm that they created was coming. You know what the government did to these finance companies and their leaders? Handed them tens (hundreds?) of billions of dollars to cover their asses. Who knows how much of that money went towards kickbacks and buying more regulators, politicians, and judges.

    Obviously, protecting the interests of the deceitful drug companies is a much higher priority for the SEC. Who feels safer and better now?

  12. kain preacher

    @Rob 5

    So you then you've worked at a pharmacy then ? As some who is a licensed pharmacy tech you are wrong. It's the pharmacy tech that sorts most billing of insurance. The pharmacist check to make sure that the patient gets the right drug and right dosages. They do consults and will advise you if you are being over medicated . I've see pharmacist o that before . Every thin\g you say they do in the UK they do in the US.

  13. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Something Wrong

    "Earlier this month, The Journal reported that Google has earmarked $500 million to settle a criminal investigation into claims that it made hundreds of millions of dollars from ads purchased by illegal online pharmacies."

    There's something wrong with a legal system that allows this sort of thing to happen. A corporation should not be allowed to "settle" a criminal investigation financially if the crimes comitted might warrant a custodial sentence. It should always be up to the courts to pass sentence, not the corporation to offer money to "settle" the case. "Settle" of course being just another word of saying "buy off".

  14. JaitcH

    Just 'running ads from online pharmacies that were breaking US laws' doesn't make illegal elsewhere

    Google, and other international companies, cross borders and different countries have different laws, therefore what is legal in one is maybe illegal in another.

    V-P Biden is obviously in the pocket of the Hollywood media types - he is the one pushing the anti-piracy and copy hacking agenda - and now, obviously, Obama and company, facing a 2012 election, is cozying up to the U.S. pharmaceutical industry which has lots of dollars to throw around.

    Maybe Obama should pay regard to hundreds, if not thousands, of American citizens who cross the northern border to purchase prescribed drugs - ignoring the fact Canadians have great marijuana, too - and with these savings can still afford the 'drug run' buses together with plenty of cash left over.

    Canadian brand name drugs often are manufactured IN the USA, so many of these drug purchases are essentially buying exported drugs and then importing them back in to the U.S.A. The only difference is the price. The Province of Ontario has a drug pricing regime that is way, way cheaper than many other places - not generics but the same name brands.

    Much of the on-line purchasing - ignoring certain blue heart-shaped pills - is a modified form of this, no buses. There is the small matter of U.S. prescriptions being accepted without a Canadian doctor actually issuing the prescription for Canadian drug sales.

    At the bottom of this whole thing is American drug companies wanting to max out their profits. They work against the legal generic drug industry yet licence generic knock-offs in India and Brazil - two countries which find it difficult to deliver drugs into the U.S.A.

    Not many Register readers have to ask themselves: Do I pay the rent, or buy food , or buy drugs. Europe looks after it's citizens, as does Canada, but in the 'greatest country in the world' there are many families who have to make this call monthly.

    Obama claims he is out to look after 'the small people' yet his policies say otherwise.

    Maybe Obama and company think they stand a better chance of getting political kickbacks from Google than they would if they chased the also illegally advertising Yahoo and Bing/Microsoft?

  15. Alan Brown Silver badge

    Card handling companies

    The problem is the card handling companies are setup by the spammers and have every trick in the book to avoid getting shut down, including being based in countries both outside the USA's jurisdiction and with no extradition treaties.

    Shane Atkinson's mob ('Herbal King’, ‘Elite Herbal’ and ‘Express Herbal’ ‘genuine replica watches’ and ‘adult toy’s’) were and are prime examples of this kind of tactic.

    What's not mentioned is that the spam operations are continuing with card handling now in parts of the world where you'd rather not be in dark alleys - or even on the main streets.

    1. Charles Manning

      I want a CC limited to only certain countries

      The further problem with CC handling is that there is no limit on where a CC gets processed. Hand over a CC number and it can get charged anywhere.

      To counter this, many customers would likely prefer to have a CC that can only be charged in certain countries, as specified by the customer. That way we get to limit how our CCs are used.

      I'd limit mine to the country where I live and a few where I do internet charging. I would not want my CC processed anywhere else.

      Make it the banks' problem. They'll soon make something work.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    We do no evil...

    ... but we sure do a lot of money! Somehow. How much are those super injunctions again?

  17. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

    We understand the urgent nature of your message...

    Anyone who has tried to contact Google about criminal use of their services knows that they've built a solid barrier to receiving such information. They don't want it. They don't want expectations of being contactable. They don't want to be responsible for how their systems, maintained or not, are being used. I won't feel any pity if they're fined $500m for their meticulously crafted ignorance of illegal activity.

  18. Anonymous Coward

    What's $500 million to Google?

    Frankly it's a bit like Dr. Evil holding the world ransom for one million dollars.

  19. Nagle

    Vetting advertisers is technically possible. Now it's essential

    If an ad service profits substantially from illegal ads, they have to expect to be viewed as participating in criminal activity. That's what's happening here.

    Online ad services should be vetting their advertisers. They should be finding out who's behind the advertised web site and running a basic commercial background check. Is there a real business out there? Are they registered with Companies House (UK), or with the appropriate authorities in other countries? How long have they been in business? What's their annual revenue? How many employees? That's part of the due diligence routine for checking out a new commercial client.

    Google just discovered that such checking isn't optional.

    Advertiser and web site vetting can be done automatically. We do that at SiteTruth. There's no technical obstacle to doing this right.

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