Google Files Suit Against Advertisers of Counterfeit Drugs

Google has taken the fight to U.S. District Court against fraudulent prescription drug sellers that post malware ads on its search site.

Google has filed a civil lawsuit to strike back against what it calls "rogue online pharmacies" advertising counterfeit drugs in malware ads on its search site, Michael Zwibelman, Google's litigation counsel, wrote in a blog post on Sept. 21.

In an e-mail to eWEEK, a Google spokesperson declined to comment further than what was stated in the blog post.

The case, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, named one individual and 50 unnamed defendants who violated the AdWords online-ad policies for advertising drugs and pharmacies not cleared by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, The Wall Street Journal reports. Pharmacies advertising on Google must be certified by that organization.

The Google AdWords online advertising guidelines read as follows: "Google AdWords prohibits the promotion of online pharmacies and prescription drugs."

"Litigation of this kind should act as a serious deterrent to anyone thinking about circumventing our policies to advertise illegally on Google," Zwibelman wrote.

The company reportedly alleges individuals misspelled pharmaceutical names deliberately to get around Google's AdWords policies about promoting online pharmacies, InformationWeek reports.

"It's been an ongoing, escalating cat-and-mouse game-as we and others build new safeguards and guidelines," Zwibelman wrote. "Rogue online pharmacies always try new tactics to get around those protections and illegally sell drugs on the Web."

Zwibelman noted an increase in the volume of rogue pharmacies recently, pointing out their sophisticated methods of bypassing Google's controls, which include automated keyword blocking. He wrote that Google will add additional "bad actors" to the lawsuit as the company comes across them.

Rob Enderle, principal analyst for the Enderle Group, told eWEEK that it's unusual for a classified advertising service, online or in traditional media, to sue an advertiser. Similar cases often involve the government or consumers suing advertisers rather than the seller of ads, or of the advertising location, initiating the suit, he noted.

"I think Google is doing this both to raise the integrity of the site and to make sure the problem doesn't become so pronounced that the government steps in and tries to fix it themselves and create a nightmare for Google," Enderle said. "They're doing the right thing regardless of the reason, and the consumer can better believe in the integrity of what's being advertised on the site." Thus, Google's fight against counterfeit ads could ultimately turn into a competitive advantage.

Google also filed a suit in December 2009 against a company called Pacific WebWorks to fight fake money schemes.

The same day that Google filed its case against the illegal prescription sellers, eNom, a large provider of Web addresses, agreed to collaborate with the LegitScript, an Internet pharmacy-verification service, to challenge Web sites that host illegal online pharmacies, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Enderle expects Google to prevail in this case and hinted that this could lead to a criminal case. "There's a package of evidence that a district attorney could carry relatively inexpensively into court and charge the individual criminally," Enderle said. "This could prepackage a criminal case if they do it right and create the deterrent that they want."

Counterfeit drug distribution is a continuing problem for the health care industry. On July 26 Oracle launched its Pedigree and Serialization Manager application to curb counterfeit drugs in the pharmaceutical supply chain. "Rogue pharmacies are bad for our users, for legitimate online pharmacies and for the entire e-commerce industry-so we are going to keep investing time and money to stop these kinds of harmful practices," Google's Zwibelman concluded.