Saturday, October 22, 2011
Holding Google Accountable: DOJ Settlement over Canadian Pharmaceutical Advertisements
Photo by: ahhyeah
Over eighty percent of Internet users worldwide use the Google search engine. Information sharing over the Internet has incredible benefit to society, but we must recognize that the corporation controls our access to that information. Further, any corporation’s main objective is to make profit and increase shareholder value, not to protect people. Google’s incredible control over the information we discover warrants robust government oversight – the recent settlement over illegal pharmaceutical advertising and sales is a positive step.
The issue in the Google Settlement is Google’s violation of The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, 21 U.S.C. § 331(a) and (d) and § 952. The Act makes it a crime to introduce into interstate commerce a misbranded or unapproved drug. Google allowed online pharmacies to buy advertising through its AdWords program and import prescription drugs into the United States. It also frequently assisted these advertisers with its “geo-tracking” function, which allows advertisers to focus on their ads in particular areas based on ad text and keywords.
Google was on notice that this activity violated US law. In March of 2003, the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy advised Google that the importation of prescription drugs from foreign countries is illegal. In response, Google hired various companies to monitor Canadian online pharmacies. The first was Square Trade, Inc., which allowed the pharmacies to self-certify their compliance with US law. Google knowingly allowed sellers who had self-certified to sell into the United States. The next was PharmacyChecker, LLC, which certified advertisers of non-controlled prescription drugs, which Google knew. Some advertisers didn’t meet either internal check and were still allowed to continue advertising. Lastly, Google knew that some advertisers, the “shady, fraudulent” ones , were not using pharmacy related terms in ad text, but instead only in key words. Since Google monitored advertisers that used pharmacy terms in text, this allowed many to go unnoticed. But Google knew of this practice and allowed it.
Google changed its practice after it became aware of the Government’s investigation, and in 2009 began to regulate online pharmacies more rigorously and allowed none from Canada. While a positive step, evading the regulatory arm of the US government in the prior years warrants this settlement. The FDA protects citizens, a vital role especially in our increasingly globalized world. We should welcome protections that safeguard our health. Accountability is vital to maintaining Google’s and society’s interests since Google has such incredible power to determine what information we discover.
An unexpected result of this settlement is the information that Canada’s regulatory regime for prescription drugs does not reach to Canadian pharmacies that ship prescription drugs to US residents. Plus, many of these pharmacies sell drugs obtained from outside of Canada, which lack adequate regulation. For the benefit of the reputation of Canada’s health system, this issue should be addressed in their government with proposed legislation to close that gap. And a request for the US government: show us the financial reporting from the Asset Forfeiture Program for the $500,000,000 dollars
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