“We started to joke that we could tell the AdWords people, ‘We want to kill baby seals,’ and they’d tell us how to do it”
At one point during a meeting with Whitaker and his lawyer, the Feds asked him how he had grown his online enterprise. Whitaker’s answer was immediate: He had used Google AdWords. In fact, he claimed, Google employees had actively helped him advertise his business, even though he had made no attempt to hide its illegal nature. It was reasonable to assume, Whitaker said, that Google was helping other rogue Internet pharmacies too.
If true, this would be a bombshell. This was Google, after all. Since its founding, the search giant had prided itself on being a different kind of corporation, the “don’t be evil” company. And for almost as long, its open-to-all-comers ad policy had come under scrutiny.
Online pharmacies were a particular sticking point; in 2003, three separate congressional committees initiated inquiries into the matter. On July 22, 2004, a month before Google went public, Sheryl Sandberg—at the time Google vice president of global online sales and operations—testified before the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. Legislators had proposed two bills that would regulate online pharmaceutical sales, but Sandberg argued that the measures would be unduly burdensome. She said that Google employed a third-party verification service to vet online pharmacies. She also described Google’s own automated monitoring system and the creation of a team of Google employees dedicated to enforcing all of the company’s pharmaceutical ad policies.
“Google has taken strong voluntarily [sic] measures—going beyond existing legal requirements—to ensure that our advertising services protect our users by providing access to safe and reliable information,” she testified. Neither bill made it out of committee. (Sandberg, now Facebook’s chief operating officer, declined to comment or be interviewed for this story.)
The agents seemed skeptical of Whitaker’s claims and spent the next 10 months following up on them. But they apparently found the story plausible, because now Whitaker was being driven to a Providence, Rhode Island, postal inspector’s office to launch the US government’s undercover investigation into one of the world’s most admired, profitable, and powerful companies.
“The culpability went far higher than the sales reps (…) We simply know from the documents we reviewed and witnesses we interviewed that Larry Page knew what was going on”