I love a Congressional investigation as well as the next guy, especially when it involves purported wrong-doing by pharmaceutical company bigwigs.

The House Committee on Commerce investigation into “who knew what when” about the ENHANCE clinical trial is a case in point. Did bigwigs at Schering-Plough cash in stock options well ahead of the negative news?

As pointed out by whistleblower Peter Rost on BrandweekNRx, at least a few people inside SP knew that ENHANCE was a failure way back in March, 2007 — about 10 months prior to the public announcement and a month or two before Schering bigwigs — including president Carrie Cox — sold stock (see “New evidence indicates Schering-Plough insiders knew the Vytorin trial was “a bust” on March 13, 2007“).

These people inside SP were “anonymous” posters to CafePharma. On March 13, 2007, an anonymous CafePharma poster claimed that a “buddy” at “SPRI” — an abbreviation for the research and development arm of Schering-Plough — said that the ENHANCE study was a bust. “Adding Zetia to already maxed-out statin is useless,” claimed this anonymous poster.

If this person knew, then so did Cox, seems to be the thinking of the Congressional Committee, which sent a letter to Sarah Palmer, CafePharma’s Webmaster/mistress, and her ISP asking for the names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses, and Internet protocol addresses of anyone creating posts prior to January 18, 2008 regarding the ENHANCE clinical trial.

It also requested that CafePharma “not destroy, dispose of, or tamper with any files or records relating to Merck/Schering-Plough and the ENHANCE study.”

CafePharma faces a dilemma: should it hand over information it has about “anonymous” posters to the House Committee on Commerce, which requested these names as part of its investigation of “who knew what when” in the ENHANCE investigation? Or should CafePharma tell the committee to “piss off!”?

At first it appears that handing over names, addresses, and e-mail addresses of “anonymous” posters is an oxymoronic endeavor — anonymous means that kind of data simply is not available. Or does it?

Having had some experience with the dark side of CafePharma (see “Banned from CafePharma!“), I can say that it is amazing what technically-savvy people can learn about “anonymous” posters. CafePharma may know the IP addresses of such posters, which can be used to trace them back to their Internet service providers, which, in turn, will have names, e-mail addresses, and possibly other personal information. You might also be able to trace what web sites anonymous posters visited prior and after posting to CafePharma.

Regardless of what personal information CafePharma has about its posters, I hope it refuses to comply with the Committee’s “request.” I am not sure what legal rights CafePharma has to refuse to comply, but this request is a serious issue for CafePharma and other “social network” Web sites whose members depend upon the owners to protect their anonymity in the exercise of their free speech rights.

Of course, it isn’t it enough for Congress to know that thanks to public postings on CafePharma it is likely that Cox and other SP employees knew of the ENHANCE trial problems well before the public announcement. What Congress wants is some kind of evidence that Cox et al actually did know and used that information to trade on. They want to know who the anonymous posters are so they can be called to testify and name names.

I am not telling CafePharma what to do, but I think anyone who owns a blog or social network that publishes “anonymous” comments should speak up against this request. It’s one thing if the information was required for national security or if the postings were death threats, but it’s quite another when we are talking about insider trading.

The Committee’s request — if left unchallenged — could further frighten the pharmaceutical industry away from social media marketing. Already the industry is concerned about what users publish on social media sites — especially if it contains off-label drug information or adverse events. The worriers don’t also need to add Congressional investigations and privacy risks to the list of their concerns.

I propose that the Pharma BlogosphereTM community draft a letter to John Dingell, Chairman of the House Committee on Commerce, protesting the committee’s request and defending the right of CafePharma to refuse to hand over private information about its members. Please join the discussion on the Pharma Marketing Network Forum I set up to get some input in creating this letter. Or send me an email: johnmack@virsci.com

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