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Google 'Putting Consumers at Risk,' State AGs Say

Herb Weisbaum
Tuesday, 18 Jun 2013 | 5:45 PM ET
Getty Images

Three state attorneys general want Google to change the way its search engine displays results.

Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood hasn't filed any charges against the search giant,but he has accused Google of helping facilitate the sale of illegal goods—from prescriptions to counterfeit music.

Frustrated with the company's inaction, Hood announced on Tuesday that he will subpoena Google's business records to find out more about how its search engine works.

Hood and attorneys general from Virginia and Hawaii—Ken Cuccinelli and David Louie respectively—have accused Google of "assisting in the sale of prescription drugs without a prescription and intentionally ignoring reports of rogue pirate sites selling stolen music, movies, software and video games."

Google has previously said it is working to fight the problem.

"In the last two years, we've removed more than 3 million ads for illegal pharmacies,and we routinely remove videos that are flagged for violating YouTube's guidelines regarding dangerous or illegal content," Google spokesman Aaron Stein said wrote in an email to the Associated Press last week.

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The National Association of Attorneys General (NAAG) invited Google CEO Larry Page to attend its national summit meeting on Tuesday to talk about all this. Page declined the invitation.

"Google's lack of response leaves us no choice except to issue subpoenas to Google for possible violations of state consumer protection acts and other state and federal civil and criminal laws," Hood said in a news release. "Google is aiding and abetting criminal activity and putting consumers at risk. This is of grave concern to the chief law enforcement officers of this nation."

The AGs say their investigation shows Google searches – because of the "autocomplete" feature – often lead people to sites that sell counterfeit goods. They're also unhappy that some of the sites selling counterfeit goods are advertising with Google.

Attorney General Hood told NBC News his office was able to buy prescription drugs from Google advertisers – without a prescription – including Viagra. Such a sale is illegal.

Hood said Google addresses these issues when there's publicity. He said they have taken down a substantial number of YouTube ads for bogus online pharmacies recently. But the ads always go back up again, he said.

Hood wants Google to "come to the table" to work out a permanent solution to the problem. He points out that two years ago, the search giant paid $500 million to settle charges with the U.S. Justice Department that claimed it illegally allowed online pharmacies in Canada to advertise drugs to U.S. customers.

He's also called on Google investors and legitimate advertisers to push the company to change the way its autocomplete feature works – to delist, or at the very least demote, the results of "rogue, serial pirating sites of which Google has been given thousands of notices."

Google responds

"Making sure ads appearing on Google and our partner sites are safe continues to be a top priority," the company said in a blog posted on Tuesday by Adam Barea, the company's legal director.

"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," Barea wrote.

In the blog post, Google said it occasionally "tweaks" its popular autocomplete feature, "to prevent shocking or offensive entries from being displayed," but otherwise the company does not decide which entries appear.

Google said its success in dealing with illegal online pharmacies had been recognized by LegitScript, a third-party company that verifies the legitimacy of Internet pharmacies.

"Google is an industry leader in safety and security on pharmaceutical ads, not only in the U.S. but globally," said John Horton, LegitScript's president in a statement. "They have come a long way."

In its blog post, Google also restated its position on filtering search:

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.

More criticism

In a report released last week, the Digital Citizens Alliance, criticized Google for allowing its YouTube platform to be "overrun with thousands of potentially dangerous and harmful videos."

The report said YouTube, which Google bought in 2006, is now being "exploited by those selling and promoting illegal narcotics, prescription drugs without a valid prescription, knock-off merchandise, and fake IDs including driver's license and passports."

The coalition, which aims to make the Internet a safer place, called Google "a great company with brilliant minds," and called on the company to clean up the site.

In his Tuesday blog post, Google's Barea said YouTube's guidelines "prohibit the sale of illegal goods or promotion of dangerous activities." He said the company responds around the clock when such content is reported.

More Information

Attorney General Asks Colleagues to Issue Subpoenas in Google Investigation

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