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The sting operation behind Google's $500 million prescription drug settlement


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In August of 2011, Google agreed to settle with the US Justice Department for $500 million after the Justice Department demonstrated that Google had allowed advertisements for illegal prescription drugs on its service.

What was not reported at the time, however, was the long-running sting operation that led to the settlement.

The Wall Street Journal recently spoke to David Whitaker, who posed as a prescription drug salesman on behalf of a federal task force after being arrested for selling illegal pharmaceuticals. Whitaker says he worked directly with Google ad executives to get advertisements for steroids and human growth hormone featured on Google's US search results, paying for the ads with a government-backed credit card.

Although Google rejected ads that linked directly to illegal prescription drug shops, the company was allegedly willing to approve sites that merely hosted request forms for the medicines, and to show ads for abortion pill RU-486 with the words "no prescription needed," a clear contradiction of US law.

Google has indicated in statements that although it later banned the sale of such ads, "it's obvious with hindsight that we shouldn't have allowed these ads on Google in the first place." Whitaker, meanwhile, has had his potential 65-year prison term reduced to six years after "rather extraordinary" cooperation.

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