A report published today by the BBC has exposed the recent appearance of ads promoting illegal ticketing sites, cannabis and producers of fake identification in Google’s sponsored results. Although the offending adverts were quickly removed after Google was approached by investigative reporters, the company did admit to profiting from the ads for the duration of their display. The Metropolitan Police had earlier approached Google regarding the issue, however it still took the company almost a week to take the ads down.
The investigation, conducted by 5 Live Investigates, was pursued after a disgruntled member of the public contacted the BBC detailing her bad experience with unofficial ticket site LiveOlympicTickets. Liz visited the seller via Google’s sponsored results, believing it to be a trusted merchant, and parted with £750 for 2 tickets.
“It was a sponsored ad at the top of the page,” Liz told 5 Live, “so we presumed it was a trusted official site, and we spent £750 on two tickets for my mum and dad to see the 1500m, which is what my dad really wanted.”
After her purchase, however, she received an e-mail asking her to fax through her signature before the order could be completed. “That’s when alarm bells began ringing,” she said.
It was at that point Liz decided to complain to Google directly, who replied:
“While Google AdWords provides a platform for companies to advertise their services, we are not responsible for, nor are we able to monitor, the actions of each company.”
Google’s Position on the Issue
Selling tickets for the Olympic Games without the permission of the Olympic authorities is a criminal offence in the UK under the London Olympic and Paralympic Games Act 2006. According to Google’s guidelines, they do not authorise anyone to “advertise anything illegal or engage in any illegal or fraudulent business practice in any state or country where your ad is displayed”.
The reason these ads managed to circumvent guidelines was due to the partially automated nature of Google’s Adwords system, which means that some offenders will always manage to slip through. There is, however, a human team also tasked with identifying and eliminating adverts which violate rules, but they will often only appraise ads when they have been flagged by a filter or reported via Google’s complaint form.
This isn’t the first time Google has been involved with illegal ads either. In a similar incident, Google recently agreed to forfeit $500million for serving ads from Canadian pharmacies selling illegal drugs to consumers in the US. The sum was estimated to be the amount of profit Google had made from the ads.
While Google assures us that they are constantly working to eliminate illegal ads and protect consumers from illicit activity, the fact that the company continues to profit from unlawful practices has led some to question the giant’s efforts.
At the very least, such activity contradicts their famous “Don’t be evil” mantra and their current Code of Conduct, which states that the company ethos is “about doing the right thing more generally — following the law, acting honorably and treating each other with respect.”
In this particular case, the maximum fine for reselling tickets is £20,000, but the Metropolitan Police has said that it would be very hard to prosecute LiveOlympicTickets as the site is based overseas. From Google’s point of view, there has been no mention of penalties, but the company has removed the offending ads from the SERPs and affirmed that when they “are informed of ads which break our policies, [they] investigate and remove them if appropriate.”