Once again, consumers are seeking to define the blurred line that lies between personal and private information in the digital age. The Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), US PIRG, Consumer Watchdog, and the World Privacy Forum (collectively “Consumer Privacy Groups”) filed a complaint against multiple providers of online medical information that asks the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate the policies of the named parties, research the effect of such policies on consumers, and require additional disclosures. Of the named parties, the list includes Google, Microsoft, QualityHealth, WebMD, Yahoo, AOL, HealthCentral, Healthline, and Everyday Health.

The Consumer Privacy Groups’ main concerns are privacy and behavioral advertising. Behavioral advertising is often used by online marketers to more effectively target their advertising campaigns to individuals who have demonstrated an interest in their product. This information is gathered through the use of cookies and other technologies to track consumers’ behaviors, searches, and interests. Using the sites of the parties named in the complaint, consumers research medical concerns and often attempt self-diagnosis and treatment. The Consumer Privacy Groups’ issue with the sites is that the information that users research is tracked and medication advertisements are often targeted toward consumers with a demonstrated need. For example, a consumer who does a significant amount of research about depression would eventually notice that advertisements on web sites pertain to brand name antidepressants. What consumers do not notice is that information relating to their searches is being trafficked between sites and marketers.

The Consumer Privacy Groups identified multiple techniques, alleged to affect consumer privacy and health, including:

  • Digital profiling, tracking, and advertising directed at individuals who research specific health concerns;
  • Social media monitoring, whereby marketers are able to monitor online conversations had about their brands;
  • Sponsored medical sites that appear impartial, but are actually owned by pharmaceutical companies;
  • False endorsements; and
  • Neuromarketing practices, whereby marketers attempt to advertise to the subconscious.

The complaint alleges that these techniques are having a negative impact on consumer privacy and health. As an example, the complaint points out that many patients recommend medications to their doctors based on information found online. On the other side, doctors and nurses are being targeted by pharmaceutical marketing companies to prescribe certain medications. The two practices, along with the hours spent researching medical conditions online while being tracked with behavioral advertising, results in consumer medical treatment being affected by pharmaceutical advertisers. The Consumer Privacy Groups view this as a dangerous notion.

To address their concerns, the complaint asks the FTC to do the following:

  • Investigate the data collection and usage policies of pharmaceutical marketing companies and make consumers more aware of their techniques;
  • Demand information from digital marketing companies regarding their marketing techniques, including behavioral advertising, tracking practices, “condition-specific” advertising, and targeting based on race and ethnicity;
  • Review the privacy policies and practices of health information web sites;
  • Examine viral marketing techniques, whereby marketing campaigns are launched through social media sites;
  • Investigate possible violations of the FTC Endorsement Guidelines;
  • Require marketing companies to provide a list of paid-for keywords used in marketing campaigns;
  • Determine the role that web design plays in advertisements and how marketers should best display their disclaimers and disclosure information;
  • Investigate sites that appear neutral, but are actually funded by pharmaceutical brands;
  • Research neuromarketing practices; and
  • Work with other agencies to determine best practices in the marketing of drugs and health-related products to consumers.

All of these requests are made in the hopes that the FTC will be able to learn more about drug and health marketing to better protect consumers. The FTC has not yet responded directly to the complaint, but considering its recent report on consumer privacy issues, it will likely be very concerned with the allegations made.