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Microsoft Allows Illegal Online Pharmacies to Advertise on Bing

posted 02:51 AM EST, Thu August 06, 2009
Microsoft Allows Illegal Online Pharmacies to Advertise on Bing © Photo Credit: Faeryboots

Microsoft is criticized for allowing illicit online pharmacies to advertise on its search engine pages.

Microsoft knowingly allows illegal and fraudulent pharmacy websites to advertise in its paid search listings – so say two internet firms, LegitScript (a pharmacy verification agency)  and KnujOn (an internet compliance company) that have released a joint report detailing the fraudulent paid search results that now appear across Microsoft’s Bing search engine.

Nearly 7 million Americans abuse pharmaceutical drugs. With such a large, captive, and in many cases, desperate market out there, online pharmacies catering to the needs and demands of these customers have the potential to do big and very profitable business.  The report authors claim that Microsoft has also profited from its participation in the marketing of illicit, and in many cases, addictive or counterfeit medications.

The study looked to evaluate the legitimacy and veracity of the paid listing “sponsored search results” for keywords related to online pharmacy. Specifically, they were on the lookout for online pharmacies advertising with Microsoft that were illegitimate in one of 4 ways:

  • Pharmacies selling drugs without requiring a valid prescription
  • Pharmacies selling medications to US customers that do not have a license to do so
  • Pharmacies selling medications from unknown sources
  • Pharmacies that engage in misleading online practices (tricks)

After reviewing the sponsored links that appeared in response to common pharmacy search terms, the study authors determined than more than 89% of sponsored links led to pharmacies that violated one or more of the 4 legitimacy criteria listed above.

Microsoft claims only to accept paid search listings from pharmacies licensed in the United States or Canada which require a legitimate prescription before shipping any medication. However, after following paid listings, the study authors were able to:

  • Order medication from India without a prescription (the medication turned out to be counterfeited)
  • Find pharmacy websites connected to Russian organized crime
  • Find pharmacy websites not licensed in the US or Canada

The report authors claim that Microsoft had been notified by three separate agencies over the past 18 months about the problematic illicit pharmacy ads, once in January 2008, by The National Association of Boards of Pharmacy, once in July 2008, by the National Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) and once in February 2009 by the American Pharmacists Association (APHA).

Although Microsoft does not, obviously, participate in the sales of illicit medications, they do sell ad placements on an auction basis, whereby a keyword with a greater advertiser demand sells for a higher price. Illicit pharmacies are blocked from marketing their wares in most (all) mainstream media and so there is great demand for sponsored placements on a legitimate search engine. This great demand drives advertising prices up (which due to the exorbitant profits made on counterfeit drugs, illicit pharmacies are happy to pay) and earns Microsoft a great deal of additional money.

In commenting on Microsoft’s ethical obligations, the study authors say "It is generally well-accepted that corporations like Microsoft have a responsibility -- certainly a moral one, and probably a legal one -- not to knowingly facilitate, much less profit from, activities that are dangerous, deceptive or unlawful."

Microsoft has issued a statement saying “We take these claims very seriously and are currently investigating the issue.”

Microsoft uses a company called “PharmacyChecker” to verify the authenticity of pharmacy sites prior to accepting advertising contracts. LegitScript may be a competitor of PharmacyChecker.

Read the original Bing pharmacy report here

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