Google Faces Fines for Pill Mill Ads

By Dirk Hanson 05/16/11

The internet giant may pony up some serious dough for promoting prescription-pill abuse.

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Pick a pharmacy. They’re all bogus.
Photo via abclocal

Recently, we reported on a study published in the respected scientific journal, Health Affairs, which found that Americans who have the most access to the Internet are much more likely to be addicted to prescription pills than their less-wired peers. The problem is compounded by the bewildering variety of drug sites offering a vast menu of prescription painkillers—often counterfeit or expired medications—without benefit of a valid doctor’s prescription. Now the government is charging that that the biggest online pill pusher of all may be Google. The Wall Street Journal reported on Friday that Google and the U.S. government were close to settling a criminal investigation into the search engine’s practice of taking paid ads from online pharmacies that violate U.S. law. In what the Wall Street Journal called a “cryptic regulatory filing,” Google has set aside a whopping $500 million as a reserve against a possible settlement with the Justice Department. Trying to pry details of the alleged settlement out of Google is like asking them for their page rank algorithm; in other words, a Google spokesperson declined comment.

Previous court cases have established that search engines are criminally liable if they profit from illegal activities. And Google has been here before, along with Microsoft and Yahoo, when the three companies agreed to pay out $31 million in fines for accepting ads from illegal online gambling sites in 2007. The drug ads dilemma has been long and odd, as Google has struggled to formulate and reformulate policies that skirt the edge of grey-market drug profiteering. In 2003, the Journal reports, the company banned advertising for U.S. companies offering Vicodin and Viagra without prescriptions. But the Justice Department has been attempting a furious crackdown on illegal online pharmacies in the wake of media reports linking Internet access to illegal drug use. The unspoken part of the proceedings--the thing that has investors truly nervous-- was well summarized in the New York Times on Friday by Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at Santa Clara University: "For investors, I think they just got a little bit of a jolt that maybe Google's profits are due to things they can't ultimately stand behind."

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]