Google falters in its ad screening

In an agreement with the Justice Department, Google admits it knowingly allowed ads for prescription drugs from Canada to be targeted at US consumers. This slip of integrity – costing it $500 million in fines – raises questions about Google's culture.

It’s not easy being Google, the world’s most powerful gatekeeper on the Internet.

The company is under increasing scrutiny by law enforcement, especially as it has leveraged a dominant market position in search-engine technology to capture other businesses, such as online advertising. And sometimes the company has to admit it makes mistakes – big ones.

Google did just that last week when it settled with the US Department of Justice for allowing Canadian pharmacies to post ads on Google for inexpensive prescription drugs aimed at customers in the United States. The fine was $500 million for participating in this illegal activity. But more than that, Google confessed that it knowingly violated its own advertising policy – for years.

Good policy doesn’t always result in good practices within a company (just ask Enron employees). A culture of civic virtue is difficult to achieve. And it is especially difficult when pressure for profits runs into the difficulty of selecting ads to allow for public consumption.

Now an information giant, Google is fully in the publishing industry. But it originates from a technocratic culture that may not have the same sense of public service that a newspaper, magazine, or TV station has long had. The ethics and legalities of screening ads requires the kind of integrity that clearly knows society’s boundaries as well as the law.

Google’s slip-up in integrity doesn’t mean it should stop carrying ads in Internet searches or on Android smart phones. But its image has been tarnished and it must rebuild trust. Some state attorneys general may now follow up on the Justice agreement to probe the company’s other advertising practices.

Generally, courts don’t penalize an information carrier for third-party carriers, such as ads. That doesn’t apply, however, for clearly criminal acts such as consumer fraud or copyright infringement.

Google isn’t the only Internet giant under scrutiny. As Facebook races to make money by advertising, it may stumble, too. Last week, for instance, it made it easier for non-American gambling companies to post ads for online gamblers. Does it really want to participate in activity that the federal government considers illegal, one that easily draws in the addictive gambler?

For any business that carries ads, it’s easy to cross the fine line into illegal or unethical activity. A number of activists, for example, are trying to force Google to remove a smart phone app that is a virtual dogfighting game. Does the company want to promote cruelty to animals?

For a company so astute in computer programs that it can locate information anywhere for consumers, Google needs to make sure it doesn’t again cross that fine line. And for a company that is virtually everywhere, it’s too big to fail the integrity test.

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