Pressure is building on the major US search engines to stop showing advertising from overseas drug sellers that deliver potentially counterfeit and dangerous products to consumers in violation of federal laws.
The US Drug Enforcement Administration and the Food and Drug Administration are concerned that the practice is continuing despite the deaths of consumers who ordered drugs without examination by a doctor.
Microsoft this month began reviewing pharmacy ads by hand after a research report revealed that many sellers on its Bing search engine boasted that no prescriptions were required and that they shipped from overseas. Both are illegal acts in the US. Microsoft deleted many suspect ads.
A report yesterday on Yahoo search found similar rogue advertisers although fewer than had been identified in the report on Microsoft; Yahoo said it had already been checking ads manually in the category, which might be why fewer illegal sellers turned up.
"Any importation into the US of narcotics, unless you are doing it to a registered importer, that would be a federal felony," DEA Special Agent Gary Boggs told the Financial Times.
Broad legal protections for internet service providers probably save Google, Microsoft and Yahoo from liability. But the same protections are prompting legitimate pharmacies and outside experts to question how hard the three are working at cutting off high-paying customers.
This month's reports were written by a security firm called KnujOn and a pharmacy-verification company named LegitScript, which is endorsed by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy.
The association, which represents regulators in the various US states, complained in writing to Google and Yahoo in mid-2008 and to Microsoft in January 2009.
A key problem for the regulators is that all three search firms accept ads from both US and Canadian pharmacies with licences. Pharmacies in Canada can ship to US residents from third countries and still stay within Canadian law.
Bing searches for "generic meds", "buy Viagra" and other phrases produced text-based ads from 69 companies, the report on Microsoft said. Of those, just seven appeared to be complying with US law. In some cases, affiliates of Russian networks took advantage of a loophole in Microsoft's self-service advertising that allowed them to display the addresses of legitimate pharmacies while sending those that clicked on the addresses to different sites. Microsoft said it was looking into the problem. Google, Microsoft and Yahoo would not comment on their Canada policy.
Some of the companies which have been prolific advertisers on Microsoft and Google arelinked to spammers who pay those who control collections of compromised personal computers, called botnets, to spew email.
Take Canadian-healthcare-shop.com. Until recently the second paid listing under a Bing search for "buy Levitra" displayed the web address www.prescriptionpoint.com, which is associated with a licensed Canadian pharmacy. But readers who clicked on the ad were instead taken to Canadian-healthcare-shop, an apparent affiliate of the unapproved Russian GlavMed network.
GlavMed was identified by Cisco's security experts as the most important commercial ally of the Storm botnet, which compromised more than a million infected computers by last year.
More than 80 per cent of the spam relayed by those machines touted pills.
The search engines have little legal risk because of a section of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that protects internet service companies from being held accountable for virtually any content provider by users or advertisers.
There is an exception for federal criminal cases, and the search engines in 2007 paid $31.5m to resolve Justice Department objections to the ads they had run in the past for online gambling firms. A similar outcome for pharmacy ads would depend on the DEA or FDA making the issue a top priority.
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