A coalition of privacy groups and other advocates are asking the Federal Trade Commission to probe whether online health marketers engage in deceptive practices by tracking users across the Web in order to serve them targeted ads.
"Digital marketing raises many distinct consumer protection and privacy issues, including an overall lack of transparency, accountability and personal control, which consumers should have over data collection and the various interactive applications used to track, target, and influence them online (including on mobile devices)," the groups allege in a 144-page complaint filed Tuesday. "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 complaint was brought by the Center for Digital Democracy, Consumer Watchdog, World Privacy Forum and U.S. Public Interest Research Group. They allege that health marketers are violating Web users' privacy by tracking them, without their knowledge, 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."
While some privacy advocates have long argued that behavioral advertising techniques violate consumers' privacy, the complaint alleges that targeted ads for pharmaceutical products raise more concerns than for other types of merchandise. "Digital marketing applications for selling cars, food, and financial products have already raised privacy and related concerns at the FTC. When applied to digital pharmaceutical and health marketing, such practices call for an even higher level of scrutiny and policy intervention," they argue.
The groups are asking the FTC to examine how pharmaceutical advertisers use online data and also to require online health marketers to detail their use of behavioral targeting. They also would like the FTC to review the online privacy policies of health and pharmaceutical sites. Additionally, they are calling on the FTC to work with the Food and Drug Administration "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."
Earlier this year, the Center for Digital Democracy also asked the FDA to examine drug companies' use of online behavioral targeting.