Ads for illegal Olympic ticket resellers, ads for cannabis, and ads for fake identification cards and UK passports. All illegal, but all could, up until recently, be found on Google.co.uk, according to a British Broadcasting Company (BBC) investigation publicized today. Though Google shut down the illegal advertisers when the matter was brought to the company’s attention by the BBC, it profited from the ads while they appeared and kept the money, according to the report.
The story is bound to sound familiar. Google recently agreed to pay a $500 million penalty to the U.S. Department of Justice to settle charges it knowingly accepted ads from Canadian pharmacies illegally selling to American customers. The company admitted wrongdoing and agreed to government monitoring to ensure it wouldn’t happen again. Back in 2007, Google paid $3 million in a similar case involving illegal gambling ads, in which Yahoo and Microsoft paid even more significant penalties.
The BBC investigation stemmed from a consumer who tried to buy Olympics tickets from an unauthorized reseller, LiveOlympicTickets, believing that a company that came up first in Google’s advertising results had to be legitimate. When LiveOlympicTickets asked her to fax in a copy of her signature to finalize the sale, she began to be suspicious and contacted the BBC investigative reporters.
“It was a sponsored ad at the top of the page, so we presumed it was a trusted official site,” the victim told the BBC, “and we spent £750 on two tickets for my mum and dad to see the 1500m, which is what my dad really wanted.”
Though UK police apparently also contacted Google, according to the report, the ads for LiveOlympicTickets continued to appear for more than a week after that, the BBC report said, until the investigative reporters contacted the search company.
This latest dust-up highlights a perennial problem at Google. Though the company uses both algorithmic and human filters to try to weed out illegal advertising, it seems that some of the noxious AdWords inevitably make it through. Even more problematic is the fact that Google appears to have a conflict of interest, because it profits from the very ads it says it’s trying hard to police. And the dollar amounts in question are not inconsequential. The $500 million penalty it paid in the DOJ illegal pharmacy case was estimated to be the value of what Google earned from the ads, along with the amount earned by the pharmacies.