Today, the Center for Digital Democracy filed a 144-page brief with the FTC challenging that agency to investigate its charges that Google, Microsoft, QualityHealth, WebMD, Yahoo, AOL, HealthCentral, Healthline, Everyday Health, and other health marketers — including major pharmaceutical companies — have “unleashed an arsenal of techniques to track and profile consumers” in an unfair and deceptive manner.

In the brief, which you can download here (huge pdf file), the CDD urges the FTC to “immediately conduct a thorough investigation and analysis of contemporary Digital Direct Marketing to Consumers of drug and health-related products and information. In addition to seeking the appropriate injunctions and other relief, we also urge the FTC to issue a report and recommendations designed to inform consumers and health professionals of the issues raised by interactive ads for medical products and services.”

CDD has a long list of specific requests that can be found on the last few pages of the brief. I’ll list a few of the more juicy ones here.

CDD says FTC should

  • “Examine and analyze the data collection and usage practices of pharmaceutical advertisers to assess the extent of consumer information collected through websites, social networks, online video sites, and other interactive means. This should include personal information, IP addresses, cookies, flash cookies, Web bugs, tracking pixels, Web analytic tools, conversational and sentiment analysis [my emphasis], and any other ‘data-mining’ applications. We urge the FTC to resist suggestions that such data collection methods are appropriate because they can help identify risk-averse-related information.”
  • “Analyze how health-related social media marketing influences consumer behavior and attitudes on drug use and about medical conditions. The agency should examine social media marketing applications for the health market designed to foster ‘viral’ marketing approaches, including the targeting of specific consumers in order to influence their own network of relationships.”
  • “Investigate whether there is a violation of the FTC’s Endorsement guidelines (which the FTC has extended to the Internet) when advice is given to patients or consumers from seemingly independent health bloggers who do not disclose that they are paid or sponsored by pharmaceutical or other companies.”
  • “Obtain from pharmaceutical companies a list of the keywords used for paid search campaigns. The companies should also be required to inform the FTC of the techniques and applications they may use in so-called organic search to show up prominently in the results. U.S. consumers should be informed by the FTC of the implications of search marketing practices when they are looking for information and advice.
  • “Work with the Food and Drug Administration and other appropriate 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.”

I have the “honor” of being quoted in paragraph 119.