Governance & Risk Management , Privacy

Privacy Advocates Call for FTC Action

Demand Regulation of Online Health Marketing Practices
Privacy Advocates Call for FTC Action
Four consumer advocacy organizations have filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, calling for it to crack down on what it portrays as unfair and deceptive Internet-based healthcare marketing and advertising practices that threaten consumer privacy.

The 144-page privacy complaint calls for, among other things, new regulations governing the marketing of drugs and health-related products online.

Privacy Threats

Among the many techniques that the groups say threaten consumer privacy and potentially put the public health at risk are:

  • Medical or disease condition targeting, in which consumers or patients who express a particular health concern are digitally profiled, tracked and served ads and content based on collection and analysis of information.
  • Monitoring by health and drug marketers of conversations consumers have via social media about pharmaceuticals, medical conditions and treatments.
  • The use of behavioral targeting, based on online data collection that analyzes a consumer's Internet activities to deliver marking and advertising that zeros in on their medical conditions.
  • Unbranded online medical condition websites that appear to provide independent information but are actually sponsored by a company whose products are used to treat the condition.
  • Free online newsletters, such as those from WebMD, and discount coupons, such as those from, that are used to collect personal information, which is then used for profiling and targeting.
  • E-detailing, the practice of targeting clinicians with digital marketing techniques designed to influence their drug prescribing habits.
  • The growing promotion of electronic health records by Google and Microsoft, both of which have "significant business in digital health marketing."
  • Neuromarketing practices, which draw on the techniques of neuroscience to develop advertising campaigns for medical products that "make direct apeals to the consumer's subconscious."

Privacy Protection

In response to these practices, the four groups, The Center for Digital Democracy, U.S. PIRG, Consumer Watchdog and World Privacy Forum, ask the FTC to take numerous steps, including:

  • Work with the Food and Drug Administration and other agencies to develop a set of policies for regulating the use of behavioral targeting, data collection and other digital techniques in the marketing of drugs and health-related products.
  • Examine and analyze data collection and use practices of pharmaceutical advertisers to assess the extent to which they collect consumer information through websites, social networks and online video sites.
  • Require companies that digitally market health products to provide information on the kinds of online targeting techniques they use.
  • Conduct a review of privacy policy pages on health and pharmaceutical websites and services, including the leading social networks promoting health products.
  • Investigate whether there is a violation of the FTC's endorsement guidelines when advice is given to consumers from seemingly independent bloggers who fail to disclose they are paid or sponsored by pharmaceutical companies.

About the Author

Howard Anderson

Howard Anderson

News Editor, ISMG

Anderson is news editor of Information Security Media Group and was founding editor of HealthcareInfoSecurity and DataBreachToday. He has more than 40 years of journalism experience, with a focus on healthcare information technology issues. Before launching HealthcareInfoSecurity, he served as founding editor of Health Data Management magazine, where he worked for 17 years, and he served in leadership roles at several other healthcare magazines and newspapers.

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