Posted by Adam Barea, Legal Director
Editor’s note: Over the years, we have run a series of blogposts detailing our efforts to remove bad ads from our systems, and describing our approach to handling controversial content on our services. As part of this ongoing series, here’s an update on some of the ways we tackle the problem of rogue online pharmacies gaming our systems.
For the last several years, Google has worked closely with a number of organizations, government agencies, and businesses to combat rogue online pharmacies from all angles.
Collectively, we are making it increasingly difficult for these operators to effectively promote their rogue pharmacies online. A variety of websites and web services are refusing ads from suspected rogue pharmacies. Domain name registrars are removing suspect rogue pharmacies from their networks. Payment processors are blocking payments to these operators, and social networking sites are removing them from their systems too.
As a result, rogue pharmacies continually adapt their online marketing practices, meaning this is an ongoing battle. We wanted to share some of the steps Google takes to combat them.
Keeping ads safe
Making sure ads appearing on Google and our partner sites are safe continues to be a top priority. We have extremely stringent ads policies, and use sophisticated automated systems, along with some human review, to identify, block and remove ads suspected of linking to rogue pharmacies. We disrupt their marketing efforts by making it difficult for rogue pharmacies to abuse our services and evade our filters.
Since 2010, we’ve only permitted U.S.-based online pharmacies accredited under the National Association Boards of Pharmacy “VIPPS” program to run pharma ads in our AdWords program. We were the first online search provider to require this certification – there are less than 40 VIPPS certified pharmacies operating in the U.S.
According to LegitScript, the number of illegal drug and pharmacy ads on major search engines like Google and Bing has declined by 99.9% percent since 2010.
In the last two years alone, Google has blocked or removed from its systems more than 3 million ads by suspected rogue pharmacies.
Our stance on filtering our search results is well-publicized. We do not remove content from search results except in narrow circumstances (e.g., child sexual abuse imagery, certain links to copyrighted material; spam; malware).
Search results reflect the web and what’s online – the good and the bad. Filtering a website from search results won’t remove it from the web, or block other websites that link to that website. It’s not Google’s place to determine what content should be censored – that responsibility belongs with the courts and the lawmakers.
Google will abide by court decisions deciding which content on the web is and is not legal. We have always removed from our search results any page found by a legitimate court to be unlawful, whether an online rogue pharmacy or otherwise.
Rogue pharmacies are clearly a matter of public concern. This is why we work closely with the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies (“CSIP”), a 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to stopping rogue online pharmacies and keeping consumers safe on the web. If a user searches on Google for terms related to online pharmacies or buying pharmaceuticals, a prominent advertisement from CSIP will often appear on the search results page, urging caution and linking to the LegitScript pharmacy verification tool.
CSIP’s ad campaign on Google is funded by a Google Grant, which provides non-profits like CSIP with financial and technical assistance to promote their important missions online. Campaigns like these help users to better understand the risks involved with rogue pharmacies and fake drugs, at the moment they’re searching for them, and provides users with a simple way to check if any pharmacy they find online is legitimate.
Updating autocomplete predictions
Autocomplete helps our users search faster. While a user types, autocomplete predicts the user’s most likely search queries based on what the user has already typed. These predictions are an algorithmic reflection of the search terms that are popular with users and on the Internet. We occasionally tweak autocomplete to prevent shocking or offensive entries from being displayed, but don’t otherwise decide which entries appear in autocomplete.
Because the feature is algorithmic, some autocomplete entries may include phrases that potentially relate to rogue pharmacies. We’re evaluating how best to address this issue, have already started running tests on the subject, and always welcome feedback.
It is still important to understand that – whether or not a predicted query is shown in autocomplete – people can still search for objectionable content that might exist on the web.
Enforcing YouTube guidelines
YouTube has implemented robust community guidelines governing uploaded content and user activity on YouTube. These guidelines prohibit spam, which includes the posting of large amounts of untargeted, unwanted, and repetitive content. YouTube’s guidelines also prohibit the sale of illegal goods or promotion of dangerous activities. Our teams respond around the clock when such content is reported to us. To make the notification process as effective as possible, YouTube provides a flagging tool under every video on the site that lets users and law enforcement easily alert us whenever a video contains content that violates YouTube’s policies regarding pharmaceuticals or illegal drugs.
Earlier this month, YouTube was notified of a number of videos promoting pharmaceuticals that violated its guidelines, and immediately removed them. YouTube will continue doing so when notified.
Working together with regulators and the industry
In 2010, following discussions with the White House, Google teamed-up with organizations across different industries — including GoDaddy, Microsoft, Visa, Yahoo! — and took the important step of founding the industry group CSIP. In addition to its public awareness campaigns (such as the one mentioned above), CSIP recently highlighted some industry initiatives by its member companies against rogue pharmacies, and specifically called out the efforts of companies like Google here.
Over the last few years, Google has made thousands of referrals to law enforcement concerning suspected rogue online pharmacies, and will continue to do so.
In October 2012, we participated in the successful Operation Pangea, in which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, in partnership with international regulatory and law enforcement agencies, took action against more than 4,100 Internet pharmacies worldwide. We also regularly keep officials up to date on our efforts – in writing and in person. For example, when the National Association of Attorneys General Intellectual Property Committee invited multiple search engines to participate in discussions with the Committee on November 28, 2012, Google was the only search engine to do so.
The industry as a whole has made significant strides in the fight against rogue pharmacies. Working together, companies in the private sector, non-profit organizations, and law enforcement have made it increasingly difficult for rogue pharmacies to effectively market their illegal products online, and operators of these sites are being forced to turn to much less effective marketing techniques from the outskirts of the Internet.
This is great progress, and Google remains committed to working with others in this important fight to protect our users.