Google says it has mounted a legal offensive against website operators who use its ad services to hawk penis-enlargement pills and other prescription drugs to people in the US without a license.
In a federal lawsuit filed on Tuesday, the search behemoth accused the owners of two websites of intentionally bypassing prohibitions preventing unlicensed online pharmacies from selling drugs through its AdWords program. According to the complaint (PDF), the advertisers used a variety of tricks to evade technical restrictions designed to enforce the policy.
In a never-ending game of cat and mouse, the advertisers have responded by bidding on words with minor misspellings of the forbidden terms, such as “sildennafil” instead of Sildenafil. As searches like this one show, such techniques continue to ensure that Google pumps out a huge number of ads that are illegal in the US.
“In recent years, we have noticed a marked increase in the number of rogue pharmacies, as well [as] an increasing sophistication in their methods,” Michael Zwibelman, Google's litigation counsel, blogged here. “This has meant that despite our best efforts – from extensive verification procedures, to automated keyword blocking, to changing our ads policies – a small percentage of pharma ads from these rogue companies is is still appearing on Google.”
He goes on to cast the lawsuit as a “serious deterrent” to anyone trying to circumvent the rules, but one has to wonder.
So far the complaint names a single individual, one Omar Jackman, owner of 4rx-online.com. Reached on Wednesday, he told The Register he advertised prescription drugs on Google for only about three weeks as an affiliate of a much bigger website called 4rx.com. When Google sent him an email demanding he stop running the ads in May or June, he complied, he said.
“To be honest i didn't know you couldn't do that until I saw the warning,” he said. “They issued a warning and I stopped immediately.”
Jackman said his entire take for the campaign was about $40, which he claims was paid to him through PayPal.
The account suggests that Google is going after the lowest level offenders, the narcotics equivalent of the corner dealer selling nickle bags.
The complaint concedes that “the combination of possible misspellings of drug terms is virtually limitless.” And as far as we can tell, so too is the supply of affiliate marketers. Zwibelman's blog post said the complaint will be amended as more offenders are identified. But unless it is updated to name the kingpins, it's likely going to be an exercise in futility. ®