Health Marketers' Online Practices Called Deceptive

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The U.S. Federal Trade Commission should investigate the online marketing of health-related products for widespread unfair and deceptive practices, including tracking of Web users' medical conditions, four privacy groups said Tuesday in a complaint to the agency.

Some companies marketing health products online are targeting potential customers with depression, diabetes, asthma and other medical conditions based their use of online health services and other sites, said the complaint, filed by the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), U.S. PIRG, Consumer Watchdog and the World Privacy Forum. Some pharmaceutical marketers are eavesdropping on online discussions about health issues by data mining social media sites, the complaint said.

Much of the Web's health marketing system, which will spend nearly US$1 billion this year, is "deliberately structured" to collect personal information, the complaint alleged.

Health information sites are collecting data without their customers' knowledge in an effort to market products, said Jeffrey Chester, executive director at CDD. "Consumers are being told these are health information sites, but data is being collected from and about them using nontransparent practices," he said. "They aren't being told they have been identified, labeled and sold for 'condition targeting' of such serious problems as diabetes, depression and arthritis."

The complaint alleges that Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are among the companies engaging in questionable health marketing practices. Also named in the complaint are WebMD, Aol and other companies. Representatives of Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and Aol did not immediately return messages seeking comment on the complaint.

Companies marketing health products online are tracking consumer behavior online to target medicine and other products to them, and they are using unbranded websites to drive business to pharmaceutical products, the 144-page complaint alleged.

"The focus on consumer protection and health/pharma marketing has traditionally been to ensure adequate risk information on drug side effects and contraindications for use," the complaint said. "But the emergence of powerful new digital marketing techniques designed to influence consumer behavior around health conditions and medications requires a new approach to informing and protecting the public."

Many health product marketers also lack a clear separation between editorial content and promotional material, a violation of FTC guidelines for online endorsements, the complaint said. "We believe that online health sites fail to clearly and prominently disclose when editorial content is independent, sponsored or advertising," Chester said.

WebMD denied that it has blurred the line between editorial and promotional materials.

"WebMD places the trusted relationship we have with our users first," said Adam Grossberg, WebMD's senior vice president of corporate communications. "We have always been transparent and direct with our users."

The site has a journalistic responsibility to make a "clear distinction" between news and marketing information, he added. "All sponsored content on our site is clearly labeled as such," Grossberg said.

The privacy groups asked the FTC to require health marketing companies to disclose their behavioral targeting practices and to review privacy policies at health and pharmaceutical websites. The groups called for the FTC to investigate whether health marketing companies are violating the agency's endorsement guidelines and whether they are using unbranded sites to promote their products.

"We believe our complaint sends a signal to the FTC and other policymakers that new rules for sensitive data is required," Chester said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is

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