Google Pays $500 Million to Settle DOJ Suit

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.

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 the U.S. Department of Justice.

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.

The shipment of prescription drugs from pharmacies outside the United States to customers in the United States typically violates the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and in the case of controlled prescription drugs , the Controlled Substances Act. Google was aware as early as 2003, that generally, it was illegal for pharmacies to ship controlled and non-controlled prescription drugs into the United States from Canada.

The importation of prescription drugs to consumers in the U.S. is almost always unlawful because FDA cannot ensure the safety and effectiveness of foreign prescription drugs that are not FDA-approved because the drugs may not meet FDA’s labeling requirements; may not have been manufactured, stored and distributed under proper conditions; and may not have been dispensed in accordance with a valid prescription. While Canada has its own regulatory rules for prescription drugs, Canadian pharmacies that ship prescription drugs to U.S. residents are not subject to Canadian regulatory authority, and many sell drugs obtained from countries other than Canada which lack adequate pharmacy regulations.

“The Department of Justice will continue to hold accountable companies who in their bid for profits violate federal law and put at risk the health and safety of American consumers,” said Deputy Attorney General James M. Cole. “This settlement ensures that Google will reform its improper advertising practices with regard to these pharmacies while paying one of the largest financial forfeiture penalties in history.”

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.

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, it took a number of steps to prevent the unlawful sale of prescription drugs by online pharmacies. 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.

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