With Bing, Microsoft is trying to reinvigorate its role in the search business. It has also inadvertently brought renewed attention to the problem of illicit pharmacies operating on the Internet.
The attention on Bing came earlier this month with the results of a study that examined Internet pharmacy ads (PDF) on Microsoft's revamped search engine. The study, conducted by LegitScript, an online pharmacy verification service, and KnujOn, an Internet compliance company, found that 90 percent of the reviewed Internet pharmacy advertisements were from fake or illegal Internet pharmacies. It also found that most of the Internet pharmacies reached through sponsored ads on Bing did not require a valid prescription.
Sponsored ads are links, paid for by companies hawking products and services, that turn up at the top of search results pages alongside noncommercial links.
"We were able to purchase potentially addictive drugs without a prescription or any age verification via Bing.com ads," LegitScript President John Horton told CNET News. "We also received counterfeit medication. Microsoft profits from these illegal ads, which put Internet users at risk."
But the problem isn't confined to Bing. For all the buzz generated by Bing--which debuted in June, replacing Microsoft's Live Search--it's still only the third most-used search tool, dwarfed by first-place Google and also well behind Yahoo. And those search engines themselves are no strangers to ads for illicit pharmacies.
The problem has also been around since consumers began flocking to the Internet more than a decade ago. In 2003, for instance, Yahoo's Overture unit bowed to pressure from pharmacy groups and stopped selling search-related advertising to unlicensed online pharmacies. That also spelled an end to the troublesome ads on Microsoft's MSN portal, at that time a significant partner of Overture.
Over the last decade, the situation has evolved to bring new challenges.
"In the early years of the Internet, it was a case of entrepreneurs not understanding the legal requirements for the dispensing of drugs. Later, it was the push by senior citizens and public officials to obtain drugs that were cheaper than medications available in the U.S.," said Carmen Catizone, executive director of the trade group National Association of Boards of Pharmacies.
"At the present time," said Catizone, who vouched for the research by LegitScript, "the Internet has become a haven for drug seekers and abusers, particularly (regarding) controlled substances. It is a much more serious and dangerous phase of the Internet."
Rogue online pharmacies sell a wide range of medications, from the sleep aid Ambien to the muscle relaxant Soma and the erectile dysfunction treatments Viagra and Cialis. The NABP lists only 18 certified and recommended online drugstores at its Web site, while more than 3,800 are non-compliant and not recommended
The response from Redmond Microsoft disputes LegitScript's claim that 90 percent of the sponsored Internet pharmacy ads on Bing are fake or illegal, adding that it is working to weed out the rogue advertisers that do slip through. The company uses an Internet pharmacy verification service called PharmacyChecker--a competitor of LegitScript--to ensure that its sponsored prescription drug advertisements are legitimate. … Read more