Google is profiting from adverts for illegal products through its AdWords advertising programme, the BBC has found.
After a lengthy investigation, the BBC discovered adverts for illegal Olympic Games tickets, cannabis, fake ID cards and even fake UK passports could be found on google.co.uk searches.
While adverts were "promptly removed" by Google after they were brought to the company's attention, the search giant admitted that it keeps any money it makes relating to companies advertising illegal services before they are removed.
But the investigation questions exactly how willing the search giant was to remove such adverts.
If the concept of illegal adverts sounds somewhat familiar, Google recently paid a $500 million penalty to the U.S. Justice Dept. for enabling Canadian pharmacies to target U.S. consumers.
In this case, illegal Olympics tickets were found at the top of searches. These adverts were displayed even after the official sale of tickets was over. The adverts misled the public and could cause consumers to lose money.
But the BBC found that even though adverts are reviewed if they are flagged as illegal, inappropriate, or offensive, Google admitted it retains the revenue it generates from these adverts before they are removed.
Google's advertising system is largely automated. The company has a "set of policies covering which ads can and cannot show on Google", enforced by both computers and humans.
Passed in 2006, Section 31 of the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act, makes it illegal to sell tickets without authorisation from the London Organising Committee. The maximum penalty fine for reselling tickets was raised last year from £5,000 ($7,700) to £20,000 ($30,900).
Despite this, the adverts relating to illegal Olympics tickets were in some cases Google's top sponsored link, and remained there for more than a week, even after Scotland Yard's Metropolitan Police asked Google to remove the advert.
Whether or not British authorities will take the same move as the U.S. Justice Dept. is somewhat unlikely. But the very fact that the company has done this before will send alarm bells ringing.
Google's own conflict of interest in the advertising business also highlights a deeply flawed problem with how the company operates. While Google did not directly sell the illegal Olympic tickets, a case could be argued that the search giant through its advertising system helped others sell the tickets.
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