Wherever you go (online), there the sales pitches are

Healthcare marketing on the Internet draws interest from privacy groups

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WASHINGTON, D.C.—In a year that saw vigorous activity in attempts to regulate and merely explain the role of the Internet in commerce, privacy groups and other advocates have stepped further into the debate by asking the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate ad targeting practices engaged in by online health marketers.

The 144-page complaint was filed in November by the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog, the World Privacy Forum and the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.

The groups allege via the complaint that health marketers are violating the privacy of individuals searching the Internet for potentially sensitive information by secretly tracking them, and "gathering details on their interests and activities (and now including offline databases and employing psychographic and demographic analysis), and then plying them with marketing messages precisely honed to a particular illness or condition."

This unauthorized tracking, known as behavioral targeting, has been in the sights of privacy groups for several years. With the exponential growth of the Internet into every facet of consumers' daily lives, the potential for sharpening advertising messages based on online behavior is irresistible to marketers. Anyone who uses Facebook or Google's Gmail feature, as only two examples, sees targeted pitches with every click.

This recent filing comes on the heels of these groups last year beseeching the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to work with other governmental bodies to urgently deal with the sensitive matter of maintaining a shroud of privacy over individuals' medical concerns.

"Consumer advocates have told both the FTC and the Department of Commerce that they must create special consumer safeguards for online pharma and health marketing," says Jeffrey Chester of the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD).

The CDD is a nonprofit group that promotes consumer protection in the digital era, especially in the health, financial and youth new media areas.

"Online marketing, including the collection of user data through so-called behavioral targeting, is a new unregulated digital frontier," says Chester. "Many of the practices used in digital marketing raise privacy and consumer protection issues, especially when deployed for sensitive matters as health, finance and (those) involving children."

Government and other media have taken a broad interest in protecting the consumer in this realm, both in attempts to explain and to educate the public about the need to protect their privacy while on the Internet. Social media behemoth Facebook has been struggling with privacy revisions to its vast network for years. The Wall Street Journal recently began an ongoing series about Internet privacy and tracking of consumer behavior; the Obama administration, through the Department of Commerce, has proposed an Internet "privacy bill of rights" and the FTC is working toward a "Do Not Track" registry.

The FDA is likewise working toward issuance of social media rules for ad placement, another regulatory arena in which Chester's group has been vocal. In late December, that body, through its Division of Drug Marketing, Advertising and Communications, issued a statement indicating that a draft guidance on that topic would not be issued until at least the first quarter of 2011.

"The use of these technologies by pharmaceutical, health product, and medical information providers that directly affect the public health and welfare of consumers requires immediate action," the groups say in the complaint.

And, in a USA Today/Gallup poll released in December, survey respondents indicated that they are for the most part cognizant of the fact that their online travels are tracked to allow advertisers to pitch their wares most effectively. But this same audience says they are opposed to those tactics, even if the result is to help keep websites free.

The poll also found that, of people who used the Internet for more than an hour per day, more than six in 10 say they have noticed that some ads are targeted specifically to them based on websites they have previously visited. On the other hand, nine in 10 say they pay little or no attention to online ads. These assessments vary little by age and income.

Another important finding of the Gallup poll was that, if given the choice, Internet users would allow ads from companies they select to be targeted to them. This finding had an inverse relationship to age, with younger people agreeing to the ads targeting more than those 55 and over.

"If the FTC moves forward with a 'Do Not Track' measure that is voluntary for advertisers, Internet users' clear desire is for online advertisers to sign up—and leave decisions about who can track them squarely in users' hands," says the survey results.

The groups which filed the complaint suggest that the FDA and FTC work together to address what they describe as the special privacy needs of the healthcare consumer, and that messages targeted to consumers based on where they have traveled around the Web are vastly different than virtual marketing pitches for cars or candy.

Potential solutions for the advocates' concerns include an agreement across the industry on advertising standards and disclosure about when private information is collected.

"Pharma and other health marketers need to embrace a code of conduct that ensures they operate in a ethically responsible manner," says Chester. "But the Federal Trade Commission, working closely with the FDA and HHS, should develop new safeguards for this marketplace. We know the FDA and HHS has taken our comments and work seriously. So far, no pharma group has responded to our complaint—which the FTC is expected to address soon."

Consumer Watchdog, World Privacy Forum and the FTC did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

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