In 2011, Google paid a record $500 million fine as part of a settlement with the Justice Department for its role in assisting companies with illegally selling drugs to US consumers.
Since that time Google has taken steps to keep drugs from being sold illegally through its Adwords program. But according to a report recently released by the Digital Citizens’ Alliance (PDF), the business has now migrated to content on Google-owned YouTube.
The report finds that as of May 8, 2013, a search for “buy drugs without a prescription” returned 32,800 results on YouTube. And according to Tom Galvin, Executive Director of the Digital Citizens’ Alliance, the organization was successful procuring Percocet, Tramadol and Hydrocodone by following the links — posing as a 15 year-old with no prescription and his dad’s credit card.
While I don’t have a problem with Americans buying safe drugs from Canadian pharmacies, it’s a bit skeevy for Google to be profiting from YouTube content selling cocaine and prescription painkillers to teenagers. It smacks of James Franco in Spring Breakers.
After the report was released, Google mass deleted hundreds of videos with titles like “buy OxyContin without a prescription.” They claim, however, that with so many videos being uploaded each day, they are “unable” to police YouTube content for things like human trafficking and illegal drug sales.
The company’s policy is to take action if users flag a particular video, but according to Galvin, the policy is somewhat less than thorough. Many of the videos he found had been online for over a year.
“Google treated it like a PR problem” says Galvin. “But until they make a systemic change, these videos are just going to repopulate.”
It strains credulity to think that a company that developed sophisticated technologies for spotting copyright violations can’t manage to flag “buy cocaine” in a headline for over a year. Indeed, in the 2011 agreement signed with the US Attorney’s office of of Rhode Island (PDF), Google acknowledged the extensive measures it takes to keep drug advertising out of its AdWords program:
In 2009, after the Company became aware of the Government’s investigation of its advertising practices in the online pharmacy area, and as a result of that investigation, the Company took a number of significant steps to prevent the unlawful sale of prescription drugs by online pharmacies to U.S. consumers….[T]he Company retained an independent company to enhance its back-end sweeps, which were designed to detect pharmacy advertisers exploiting flaws in the Company’s screening systems.
Moreover, as part of the agreement Google agreed to “continue to improve its electronic systems designed to block ads that violate its policies.” However it’s clear from the DCA report that Google continues to profit from ads running on YouTube content generated by the same entities they will no longer sell AdWords advertising to:
Google’s decision to claim helplessness when it comes to policing YouTube content has drawn the attention of State Attornies General Jon Bruning of Nebraska and Scott Pruitt of Oklahoma, who recently sent a letter to Kent Walker, Senior Vice President and General Counsel of Google (PDF). From the release (PDF):
“Google stands to make money from ads running in conjunction with instructional videos on everything from illegally purchasing prescription drugs and making fraudulent passports to promoting human trafficking and terrorist propaganda,” said Bruning. “I’m deeply disappointed with Google’s lackadaisical attitude toward Internet safety and consumer protection. The company should be held accountable for profiting from a platform that perpetuates criminal activity.”
Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood has also warned Google that he believes they have violated their 2011 settlement with the Justice Department.
Google has admitted that helping its advertisers to skirt US law was a deliberate practice, done with the full knowledge of Google chief Larry Page. It would be interesting to know how high up the Google food chain this “PR problem” has gone, and how much traffic the internet giant thinks it would lose it it cleaned up its YouTube act.