Microsoft's Bing 'compromised by rogue Internet pharmacies'

bing logoLast month, drew attention to the fact that Google’s news service has been hijacked by illegal pharmaceutical ads masquerading as legitimate news articles.

Now Microsoft’s new search engine Bing comes into the firing line amid claims that 90 per cent of pharmacies that advertise on it illegally offer to sell medicines without a prescription.

A report published by LegitScript and KnujOn on August 4 said that 89.7 per cent of the prescription drug and online pharmacy advertisements on the so-called "decision engine" led to Internet pharmacies that were acting unlawfully or fraudulently. KnujOn is an antispam company while LegitScript is an organisation which verifies the legitimacy of online pharmacies.

The authors are careful to distinguish between ‘organic’ search results - the main body of search results over which search engine operators have little control - and the sponsored links which generate a revenue stream for Microsoft when an Internet user clicks on them.

“Microsoft has a much greater deal of control over, and financial stake in, the type of websites that appear in its sponsored search results,” says the report.

However, despite Microsoft's stated policy of only sponsoring Internet pharmacies that supply drugs from the USA or Canada, the authors were able to order prescription drugs, without a prescription, from India. The drugs were subsequently found to be counterfeit on testing.

“Some rogue Internet pharmacies sponsored by Microsoft are members of ‘affiliate pharmacy networks’ linked to Russian organised crime,” say the authors of the report. "Many were tied to Russian organisations that sell counterfeit drugs, expired drugs, drugs with no requirement of a prescription, or simply engage in fraudulent credit card charges.”

Worryingly for Microsoft’s legitimate advertisers, there were a number of instances in which a sponsored ad for a licensed pharmacy was redirected to an unrelated website for a rogue Internet pharmacy. “This implies gaps in the security, or at least transparency, of Microsoft’s online advertising program,” they point out.

“In a sense, online advertising programs are the revenue engine that drives much of the Internet forward,” the report concludes. “In the long term, trust is similarly at the core of successful sponsored search result programs. If this trust breaks down, so inevitably will the search engine’s online advertising program.”

Test searches on Google and Yahoo also reveal a similar picture of sponsored links to websites proffering prescription drugs without a prescription, and their moment in the spotlight may come: LegitScript and KnujOn say their report on Bing is just the first in a series on US-based corporations that facilitate, and/or profit from, rogue Internet pharmacies.

“It is incumbent upon Microsoft to ensure that its stated policies, and the implementation of those policies, are brought fully into compliance with the laws, regulations, and standards of safety that govern the practice of medicine and pharmacy,” say the authors.

The report is available for free download here (note: 10mb file).

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