Washington: Many times search for “ringtones’’ on Google one will get a few hundred million results – and about 10 small ads on the first page you see, including one that promises “Get Free Unlimited Ringtones Here. No Catch. No Hidden Charges or Fees.’’
But click on the ad, and it’s unlikely that you will find the ringtones that are free. Instead, all the colorful, blinking, compelling graphics lead you down slippery paths that quickly commit you to plans that charge your phone bill or credit card.
Does such online sleight of hand constitute illegal deception on the part of the advertiser, or Google Inc., which places such ads on websites? Or both?
Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., but also with operations in Cambridge, was compelled to address that issue in last week’s settlement with the US Department of Justice.
The Internet search giant agreed to pay $500 million to the federal government and admit the company’s ad service helped online pharmacies illegally sell prescription drugs to US consumers.
Google pulled down the ads for Canadian drugs after learning of the Justice Department investigation, but the settlement, one of the largest of its kind in US history, opened the door for more investigations into the role it plays in publishing questionable advertisements.
“Many state attorneys general are probably now looking at Google very closely, wondering whether there are deceptive ads worth investigating and prosecuting,’’ said Ben Edelman, assistant professor at Harvard Business School and a consultant on Web advertising fraud. “Google could be sitting on billions of dollars of ill-gotten gains.’’
While Google has admitted that it was in the wrong to run the Canadian pharmacy ads (“It’s obvious with hindsight that we shouldn’t have allowed these ads on Google,’’ the company said in a prepared statement), it insists that it is aggressively policing the ads that currently run on its service.
“Google has a natural long-term financial incentive to make sure that the advertisements we serve are trustworthy, so that users continue to use our services,’’ spokeswoman Diana Adair said last week. “And we aren’t afraid to take aggressive action to achieve that goal.’’
Yet some Google critics say that may no longer be enough.
“There has been this imaginary line that Internet companies aren’t responsible for what people do on their applications,’’ said Scott Cleland, author of “Search & Destroy,’’ a book critical of Google. “But that didn’t apply in the Canadian pharmacy case. Instead, you had one of the largest brands in the world admitting to felonies and paying a half-billion-dollar fine for restitution.’’