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Hood subpoenas Google's records over online drug sales

JACKSON — Attorney General Jim Hood says he still considers Google’s responses to allegations that it’s not doing enough to prevent illegal online sales of drugs without prescriptions and says he’s sending out subpoenas for company documents to further his investigation.

Hood urged fellow attorneys general from other states to do the same at a meeting in Boston yesterday, even as Google made its fullest response to date to the allegations.

Hood, a Democrat, says the Mountain View, Calif.-based company hasn’t adequately responded to requests by himself and the National Association of Attorneys General to discuss sites that sell drugs without prescriptions, as well as that improperly link to copyrighted music, videos and other material.

“We in good faith invited Larry Page, chief executive officer of Google, to have an open, honest and transparent conversation about these important issues that are putting consumers at risk and facilitating wrongdoing, all while profiting handsomely from this dangerous behavior,” Hood said in a statement. “Google’s lack of response leaves us no choice except to issue subpoenas to Google for possible violations of state consumer protection acts and other state and federal civil and criminal laws.”

The move could be the first step toward a criminal or civil prosecution of the company, and Hood has likened the possibility to the blockbuster litigation that a predecessor of his pursued against tobacco companies.

Hood also said he would send evidence of illegal drug purchases to the U.S. Department of Justice. Google paid $500 million to the federal government in 2011 to settle claims over ads sold to pharmacies that were illegally shipping drugs into the United States. Hood said Google has breached the agreement it made with federal officials.

Google, in comments posted yesterday by legal director Adam Barea, says it’s making it harder for illegal pharmacies to operate.

“Working together, companies in the private sector, non-profit organizations and law enforcement have made it increasingly difficult for rogue pharmacies to effectively market their illegal products online,” Barea wrote, “and operators of these sites are being forced to turn to much less effective marketing techniques from the outskirts of the Internet.

That said, Google still doesn’t want to block search results for online drugs, as Hood has demanded.

“We do not remove content from search results except in narrow circumstances (e.g. child sexual abuse imagery, certain links to copyrighted material, spam, malware),” Barea wrote in comments that never mentioned Hood by name.

“It’s not Google’s place to determine what content should be censored — that responsibility belongs with the courts and the lawmakers.”

Hood had said last week that it appeared Google was removing videos on its YouTube site that promoted drugs for sale without prescription, after Hood and a Washington, D.C. group called Digital Citizens Alliance had complained about them.

“Earlier this month YouTube was notified of a number of videos promoting pharmaceuticals that violated its guidelines, and immediately removed them,” Barea wrote. “YouTube will continue doing so when notified.”

Hood also says that Google still isn’t doing enough to stop its auto-complete feature from suggesting sites for online drugs without a prescription and pirated movies, saying the phrases “facilitate known illegal behavior.”

Barea wrote that Google is working on the problem: “We’re evaluating how to best address this issue, have already started running tests on the subject, and always welcome feedback.”


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