Google posted a big update to its Public Policy blog today about its continued efforts to combat rogue online pharmacies. The update comes after recent comments from Mississippi AG Jim Hood accusing Google of “profiting handsomely from illegal behavior” by not doing enough to keep illegal drug content out of its search results.
“On every check we have made, Google’s search engine gave us easy access to illegal goods including websites which offer dangerous drugs without a prescription, counterfeit goods of every description, and infringing copies of movies, music, software and games. This behavior means that Google is putting consumers at risk and facilitating wrongdoing, all while profiting handsomely from illegal behavior,” Hood said.
Google's efforts, as outlined in the new post, basically boil down to keeping ads safe, keeping search results free of illegal content, as deemed so by the court, updating its autocomplete predictions, enforcing YouTube guidelines, and working with regulators and the industry.
On the ad side of things, Google notes that it has "extremely stringent" ad poicies that use "sophisticated automated systems" along with some human review to block and remove ads suspected of linking to rogue pharmacies.
"Since 2010, we’ve only permitted U.S.-based online pharmacies accredited under the National Association Boards of Pharmacy 'VIPPS' program to run pharma ads in our AdWords program," writes Google legal director Adam Barea. " We were the first online search provider to require this certification - there are less than 40 VIPPS certified pharmacies operating in the U.S."
He also notes that Google partners with LegitScript, a company with "deep knowledge" of online pharmacies, to conduct weekly "sweeps" of ads on Google to help makes sure they're keeping ads "safe". He drops the stat that illegal drug/pharmacy ads on major search engine like Google and Bing have declined by 99.9% since 2010. Google says it has removed over 3 million ads from suspected rogue pharmacies over the past two years.
On the organic search results side of things, Google maintains its long-standing policy that its not its place to determine what content should be censored and what should not, a responsibility it says lies solely with courts and lawmakers. The company says it will continue to abide by court decisions deciding which content on the web is and is not legal, and that it has always removed results for pages found to be unlawful.
"Rogue pharmacies are clearly a matter of public concern," writes Barea. "This is why we work closely with the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies ('CSIP'), a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to stopping rogue online pharmacies and keeping consumers safe on the web. If a user searches on Google for terms related to online pharmacies or buying pharmaceuticals, a prominent advertisement from CSIP will often appear on the search results page, urging caution and linking to the LegitScript pharmacy verification tool."
Google notes that the ad campaign from CSIP is actually funded by a Google Grant.
Regarding Google autocomplete predictions, Google reminds everyone that it's all algorithmic, but they will make adjustments when necessary. However, "Because the feature is algorithmic, some autocomplete entries may include phrases that potentially relate to rogue pharmacies," Barea says. "We’re evaluating how best to address this issue, have already started running tests on the subject, and always welcome feedback."
Regarding YouTube guidelines, he says, "YouTube has implemented robust community guidelines governing uploaded content and user activity on YouTube. These guidelines prohibit spam, which includes the posting of large amounts of untargeted, unwanted, and repetitive content. YouTube's guidelines also prohibit the sale of illegal goods or promotion of dangerous activities. Our teams respond around the clock when such content is reported to us. To make the notification process as effective as possible, YouTube provides a flagging tool under every video on the site that lets users and law enforcement easily alert us whenever a video contains content that violates YouTube’s policies regarding pharmaceuticals or illegal drugs."
YouTube apparently removed a number of videos promoting pharmaceuticals earlier this month.
See the blog post for more on how Google is working with regulators.
In 2011, Google was forced to forfeit $500 million for allowing Canadian pharmacies to place ads through Adwords. The money was dispersed to various law enforcement agencies last year.