Online search engine Google Inc. has agreed to forfeit $500 million for allowing online Canadian pharmacies to place advertisements through its AdWords program targeting consumers in the United States, resulting in the unlawful importation of controlled and non-controlled prescription drugs into the United States, announced Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole; Peter F. Neronha, U.S. Attorney for the District of Rhode Island; and Kathleen Martin-Weis, Acting Director of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Office of Criminal Investigations (FDA/OCI). The forfeiture, one of the largest ever in the United States, represents the gross revenue received by Google as a result of Canadian pharmacies advertising through Google’s AdWords program, plus gross revenue made by Canadian pharmacies from their sales to U.S. consumers.
An investigation by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Rhode Island and the FDA/OCI Rhode Island Task Force revealed that as early as 2003, Google was on notice that online Canadian pharmacies were advertising prescription drugs to Google users in the United States through Google’s AdWords advertising program. Although Google took steps to block pharmacies in countries other than Canada from advertising in the U.S. through AdWords, they continued to allow Canadian pharmacy advertisers to target consumers in the United States. Google was aware that U.S. consumers were making online purchases of prescription drugs from these Canadian online pharmacies, and that many of the pharmacies distributed prescription drugs, including controlled prescription drugs, based on an online consultation rather than a valid prescription from a treating medical practitioner. Google was also on notice that many pharmacies accepting an online consultation rather than a prescription charged a premium for doing so because individuals seeking to obtain prescription drugs without a valid prescription were willing to pay higher prices for the drugs.
Further, from 2003 through 2009, Google provided customer support to some of these Canadian online pharmacy advertisers to assist them in placing and optimizing their AdWords advertisements, and in improving the effectiveness of their websites.
In 2009, after Google became aware of the investigation by the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FDA/OCI Rhode Island Task Force of its advertising practices in the online pharmacy area, and as a result of that investigation, Google took a number of steps to prevent the unlawful sale of prescription drugs by online pharmacies to U.S. consumers. Among other things, Google began requiring online pharmacy advertisers to be certified by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy’s Verified Internet Pharmacy Practices Sites program, which conducts site visits; has a stringent standard against the issuance of prescriptions based on online consultations; and, most significantly, does not certify Canadian online pharmacies. In addition, Google retained an independent company to enhance detection of pharmacy advertisers exploiting flaws in the Google’s screening systems.
Under the terms of an agreement signed by Google and the government, Google acknowledges that it improperly assisted Canadian online pharmacy advertisers to run advertisements that targeted the United States through AdWords, and the company accepts responsibility for this conduct. In addition to requiring Google to forfeit $500 million, the agreement also sets forth a number of compliance and reporting measures which must be taken by Google in order to insure that the conduct described in the agreement does not occur in the future.
Read the Complete Announcement from the DOJ