Google has agreed to forfeit $500 million for allowing online Canadian pharmacies to place advertisements targeting consumers in the USA, resulting in the unlawful importation of drugs.

The Department of Justice says that the forfeiture, one of the largest ever in the country, represents the gross revenue received by Google as a result of Canadian pharmacies advertising through the search engine giant’s AdWords advertising programme, plus money made by Canadian pharmacies from their sales to US consumers. The agency notes that Google was aware as early as 2003, that "generally, it was illegal for pharmacies to ship controlled and non-controlled prescription drugs into the USA from Canada".

Pharmacies assisted in placing ads

However, although Google took steps to block pharmacies in countries other than Canada from advertising in the USA through AdWords, "they continued to allow advertisers across the border to target consumers in the USA", the DoJ notes. Furthermore, from 2003 through 2009, Google provided customer support to some of these advertisers "to assist them in placing and optimising their AdWords advertisements, and in improving the effectiveness of their websites".

In 2009, Google finally acted after it became aware of the investigation led by government officials from Rhode Island. Under the terms of the settlement, Google now acknowledges that it acted improperly and in addition to the $500 million forfeiture, and has agreed to a number of compliance and reporting measures.

The investigation of Google had its origins "in a separate, multimillion dollar financial fraud investigation" unrelated to the company, the DoJ says, the main target of which fled to Mexico. While a fugitive, he began to advertise through AdWords but after being apprehended in Mexico and returned to the USA by the Secret Service, he began cooperating with law enforcement agencies.

Peter Neronha, US attorney for Rhode Island, said the investigation "is about taking a significant step forward in limiting the ability of rogue on-line pharmacies from reaching US consumers, by compelling Google to change its behaviour". He added that $500 million is "the kind of forfeiture that will not only get Google’s attention, but the attention of all those who contribute to America’s pill problem".

A spokesperson for Google, which had revenues of $29.30 billion last year, told PharmaTimes World News that "while we banned the advertising of prescription drugs in the USA by Canadian pharmacies some time ago, it's obvious with hindsight that we shouldn't have allowed these ads on Google in the first place".