Google wins fight to keep Adwords FBI drug sting docs secret

Federal court gags Mississippi attorney general – for now

How did Google get here? And what does it want to keep quiet?

For years, the state attorneys-general allege, Google promoted the sale of unlicensed and fake drugs and other controlled substances in its search results, receiving money for doing so under its Adwords programme. While some of the unlicensed drugs were safely manufactured in the USA and re-imported from Mexico and Canada, many were not, including lethal fakes manufactured in China and Russia.

After an 18 year old died, AOL and Microsoft quickly cleaned up their respective shops – requiring age verification, for example. Google was slow to follow suit, as its Adwords product became big business.

The trade only came to a halt after a sophisticated sting operation by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the FBI. Investigators set up over a dozen fake trafficking operations and applied to market them using Adwords. They gained an insight into how Google facilitated the trade, gathering around four million documents. Rhode Island, which has a long history of fighting organised crime, joined the investigation.

As the investigation neared the indictments stage, Google settled. In 2011 it signed the NPA, fending off an indictment that could have seen charges brought against Google’s management. As part of that settlement Google agreed to pay a $500m forfeiture and acknowledged the extent of its involvement. It has since committed an additional $250m to settle shareholder lawsuits over its involvement in the drugs business.

There are several things about the NPA that are unusual. It’s an agreement not to prosecute, which is subtly different from a “deferred prosecution agreement” or a “plea agreement”. Google maintains that it never settled with the states – an important thing to bear in mind as the litigation rolls on. And Rhode Island, once the most aggressive of the states' criminal prosecutors, has been silent since it emerged that $280m of the forfeiture was funnelled to the state. Much of the evidence remains under seal … in Rhode Island.

Who knew what?

A clue into why Google is fighting Mississippi so aggressively came from comments made by Peter Neronha, Rhode Island’s US attorney (a Federal appointee, not the elected state A-G). As the Wall Street Journal reported at the time:

“Larry Page knew what was going on,” Peter Neronha, the Rhode Island U.S. Attorney who led the probe, said in an interview. “We know it from the investigation. We simply know it from the documents we reviewed, witnesses that we interviewed, that Larry Page knew what was going on” … “[T]his is not two or three rogue employees at the customer service level…," Mr. Neronha said in an interview. "This was a corporate decision to engage in this conduct."

“There’s something about that agreement that Google really, really, really doesn’t want to discuss,” notes one lawyer.

Around 1,000 pages of material from the Rhode Island archive have emerged – in a very obscure case, and in highly redacted form.

The case is DeKalb County Pension Fund v. Page as heard before the Chancery Court of Delaware (case number 7694-CS). Google was said to have submitted evidence including quotes from directors of the company.

So the battle for criminal prosecutors since 2011 has been twofold: to ascertain the level of knowledge that top of the company had about its activities, and to determine whether Google has really cleaned up its act or simply shifted the traffic to another portion of Google.

What’s not in doubt that Google has succeeded in throwing a cloak over the affair, by using diversionary tactics in which it portrays itself as a victim. A few days before Google sued Hood under the CDA, stories appeared that Hood was in Hollywood’s pocket. Using highly selective excerpts from the stolen Sony emails, Google painted Hood as a threat to “internet freedom” and the “open web”.

Yet copyright isn’t Hood’s major concern – IP issues are a footnote in Hood’s 79-page subpoena. Third party liability wasn’t the states’ concern here. And Hood’s lifetime campaign contributions from Hollywood, described by VC-backed site The Verge as “lucrative”, amounted to $2,500 from the MPA and $4,000 from Comcast and NBC. Barely enough to pay for a cocktail party.

Google argued the states that were suing Google over drug trafficking were “attempting to revive SOPA”. Google’s friends joined in. A number of groups including the EFF, the Consumer Industry Association, the Center for Democracy and Technology and Public Knowledge filed an amicus brief backing Google against Hood. All four groups have received Google funding; all four appear in the 2012 “shill list” that emerged in the Oracle Java trial.

And, in an even stranger twist, Republicans in the Mississippi legislature attempted to muzzle Hood too. Hood answers to the voters who elected him but Republicans wanted to change the law so he couldn’t pursue corporate criminal cases without their say-so, through a “Permission to Sue” bill. The bill was rejected.

The Rhode Island document trove remains invisible, for now. ®


For more on Google’s lobbying, see “Mission Creepy” - a report from Public Citizen’s Congress Watch project, and the Washington Post’s investigation into Google’s funding of academia, think tanks and “civil society” groups, which we summarised here.

Similar topics

Other stories you might like

  • Man gets two years in prison for selling 200,000 DDoS hits
    Over 2,000 customers with malice on their minds

    A 33-year-old Illinois man has been sentenced to two years in prison for running websites that paying customers used to launch more than 200,000 distributed denial-of-services (DDoS) attacks.

    A US California Central District jury found the Prairie State's Matthew Gatrel guilty of one count each of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, unauthorized impairment of a protected computer and conspiracy to commit unauthorized impairment of a protected computer. He was initially charged in 2018 after the Feds shut down 15 websites offering DDoS for hire.

    Gatrel, was convicted of owning and operating two websites – and – that sold DDoS attacks. The FBI said that DownThem sold subscriptions that allowed the more than 2,000 customers to run the attacks while AmpNode provided customers with the server hosting. AmpNode spoofed servers that could be pre-configured with DDoS attack scripts and attack amplifiers to launch simultaneous attacks on victims.

    Continue reading
  • Google has more reasons why it doesn't like antitrust law that affects Google
    It'll ruin Gmail, claims web ads giant

    Google has a fresh list of reasons why it opposes tech antitrust legislation making its way through Congress but, like others who've expressed discontent, the ad giant's complaints leave out mention of portions of the proposed law that address said gripes.

    The law bill in question is S.2992, the Senate version of the American Innovation and Choice Online Act (AICOA), which is closer than ever to getting votes in the House and Senate, which could see it advanced to President Biden's desk.

    AICOA prohibits tech companies above a certain size from favoring their own products and services over their competitors. It applies to businesses considered "critical trading partners," meaning the company controls access to a platform through which business users reach their customers. Google, Apple, Amazon, and Meta in one way or another seemingly fall under the scope of this US legislation. 

    Continue reading
  • I was fired for blowing the whistle on cult's status in Google unit, says contractor
    The internet giant, a doomsday religious sect, and a lawsuit in Silicon Valley

    A former Google video producer has sued the internet giant alleging he was unfairly fired for blowing the whistle on a religious sect that had all but taken over his business unit. 

    The lawsuit demands a jury trial and financial restitution for "religious discrimination, wrongful termination, retaliation and related causes of action." It alleges Peter Lubbers, director of the Google Developer Studio (GDS) film group in which 34-year-old plaintiff Kevin Lloyd worked, is not only a member of The Fellowship of Friends, the exec was influential in growing the studio into a team that, in essence, funneled money back to the fellowship.

    In his complaint [PDF], filed in a California Superior Court in Silicon Valley, Lloyd lays down a case that he was fired for expressing concerns over the fellowship's influence at Google, specifically in the GDS. When these concerns were reported to a manager, Lloyd was told to drop the issue or risk losing his job, it is claimed. 

    Continue reading
  • End of the road for biz living off free G Suite legacy edition
    Firms accustomed to freebies miffed that web giant's largess doesn't last

    After offering free G Suite apps for more than a decade, Google next week plans to discontinue its legacy service – which hasn't been offered to new customers since 2012 – and force business users to transition to a paid subscription for the service's successor, Google Workspace.

    "For businesses, the G Suite legacy free edition will no longer be available after June 27, 2022," Google explains in its support document. "Your account will be automatically transitioned to a paid Google Workspace subscription where we continue to deliver new capabilities to help businesses transform the way they work."

    Small business owners who have relied on the G Suite legacy free edition aren't thrilled that they will have to pay for Workspace or migrate to a rival like Microsoft, which happens to be actively encouraging defectors. As noted by The New York Times on Monday, the approaching deadline has elicited complaints from small firms that bet on Google's cloud productivity apps in the 2006-2012 period and have enjoyed the lack of billing since then.

    Continue reading
  • It's a crime to use Google Analytics, watchdog tells Italian website
    Because data flows into the United States, not because of that user interface

    Another kicking has been leveled at American tech giants by EU regulators as Italy's data protection authority ruled against transfers of data to the US using Google Analytics.

    The ruling by the Garante was made yesterday as regulators took a close look at a website operator who was using Google Analytics. The regulators found that the site collected all manner of information.

    So far, so normal. Google Analytics is commonly used by websites to analyze traffic. Others exist, but Google's is very much the big beast. It also performs its analysis in the USA, which is what EU regulators have taken exception to. The place is, after all, "a country without an adequate level of data protection," according to the regulator.

    Continue reading
  • Google recasts Anthos with hitch to AWS Outposts
    If at first you don't succeed, change names and try again

    Google Cloud's Anthos on-prem platform is getting a new home under the search giant’s recently announced Google Distributed Cloud (GDC) portfolio, where it will live on as a software-based competitor to AWS Outposts and Microsoft Azure Stack.

    Introduced last fall, GDC enables customers to deploy managed servers and software in private datacenters and at communication service provider or on the edge.

    Its latest update sees Google reposition Anthos on-prem, introduced back in 2020, as the bring-your-own-server edition of GDC. Using the service, customers can extend Google Cloud-style management and services to applications running on-prem.

    Continue reading
  • Makers of ad blockers and browser privacy extensions fear the end is near
    Overhaul of Chrome add-ons set for January, Google says it's for all our own good

    Special report Seven months from now, assuming all goes as planned, Google Chrome will drop support for its legacy extension platform, known as Manifest v2 (Mv2). This is significant if you use a browser extension to, for instance, filter out certain kinds of content and safeguard your privacy.

    Google's Chrome Web Store is supposed to stop accepting Mv2 extension submissions sometime this month. As of January 2023, Chrome will stop running extensions created using Mv2, with limited exceptions for enterprise versions of Chrome operating under corporate policy. And by June 2023, even enterprise versions of Chrome will prevent Mv2 extensions from running.

    The anticipated result will be fewer extensions and less innovation, according to several extension developers.

    Continue reading
  • UK competition watchdog seeks to make mobile browsers, cloud gaming and payments more competitive
    Investigation could help end WebKit monoculture on iOS devices

    The United Kingdom's Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) on Friday said it intends to launch an investigation of Apple's and Google's market power with respect to mobile browsers and cloud gaming, and to take enforcement action against Google for its app store payment practices.

    "When it comes to how people use mobile phones, Apple and Google hold all the cards," said Andrea Coscelli, Chief Executive of the CMA, in a statement. "As good as many of their services and products are, their strong grip on mobile ecosystems allows them to shut out competitors, holding back the British tech sector and limiting choice."

    The decision to open a formal investigation follows the CMA's year-long study of the mobile ecosystem. The competition watchdog's findings have been published in a report that concludes Apple and Google have a duopoly that limits competition.

    Continue reading
  • Google offers $118m to settle gender discrimination lawsuit
    Don't even think about putting LaMDA on the compensation committee

    Google has promised to cough up $118 million to settle a years-long gender-discrimination class-action lawsuit that alleged the internet giant unfairly pays men more than women.

    The case, launched in 2017, was led by three women, Kelly Ellis, Holly Pease, and Kelli Wisuri, who filed a complaint alleging the search giant hires women in lower-paying positions compared to men despite them having the same qualifications. Female staff are also less likely to get promoted, it was claimed.

    Gender discrimination also exists within the same job tier, too, the complaint stated. Google was accused of paying women less than their male counterparts despite them doing the same work. The lawsuit was later upgraded to a class-action status when a fourth woman, Heidi Lamar, joined as a plaintiff. The class is said to cover more than 15,000 people.

    Continue reading
  • Google: How we tackled this iPhone, Android spyware
    Watching people's every move and collecting their info – not on our watch, says web ads giant

    Spyware developed by Italian firm RCS Labs was used to target cellphones in Italy and Kazakhstan — in some cases with an assist from the victims' cellular network providers, according to Google's Threat Analysis Group (TAG).

    RCS Labs customers include law-enforcement agencies worldwide, according to the vendor's website. It's one of more than 30 outfits Google researchers are tracking that sell exploits or surveillance capabilities to government-backed groups. And we're told this particular spyware runs on both iOS and Android phones.

    We understand this particular campaign of espionage involving RCS's spyware was documented last week by Lookout, which dubbed the toolkit "Hermit." We're told it is potentially capable of spying on the victims' chat apps, camera and microphone, contacts book and calendars, browser, and clipboard, and beam that info back to base. It's said that Italian authorities have used this tool in tackling corruption cases, and the Kazakh government has had its hands on it, too.

    Continue reading

Biting the hand that feeds IT © 1998–2022