How Big Pharma Censors the Internet

Government quietly involved behind the scenes

By Jeremy Malcolm, Electronic Frontier Foundation:

Americans pay by far the highest prices in the world for most prescription drugs, and of course big pharma would like to keep it that way. Key measures that the industry relies upon in this regard are the Prescription Drug Marketing Act [PDF] and Ryan Haight Online Pharmacy Consumer Protection Act [PDF], which make it unlawful for most Americans to access lower-priced drugs from overseas, coupled with the powers of U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) to seize such drugs at the border on their own initiative.

In practice however, discretionary guidelines developed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and enforced by the CBP allow American consumers to import a 90-day supply of some prescription medications for personal use, including by bringing them across border checkpoints in personal luggage, or by mailing them from overseas. In the latter case, a large market exists for pharmacies registered in other countries such as Canada, Australia and Turkey, that will accept online orders and mail genuine pharmaceuticals to American consumers at cheaper than local prices.

Big pharma doesn’t like this [PDF], but since the importation is already technically against federal law, they can’t do much more about it. At least, not through legal channels…and that’s where they get creative. As we described last week, where industry can’t get government to regulate the Internet in the way they want, they frequently turn to private deals with Internet intermediaries that we’ve termed Shadow Regulation.

Big pharma is a major proponent of this practice, having spearheaded a range of such private deals that they use in an attempt to quell the supply of prescription drugs to Americans through overseas online pharmacies.

This private censorship regime insinuates multiple links in the chain between Internet content and its audience. This includes blocking blacklisted pharmaceutical websites from access to payment services [PDF], online advertising services, and domain names. You might assume that the various terms of service of these companies, although all addressing online pharmaceutical sales in a similar way, were devised independently and voluntarily. But that isn’t the case.

Profile of a Shadow Regulation Network

This particular Shadow Regulation network contains a confusing web of similar-sounding organizations with overlapping memberships, such as the Alliance for Safe Online Pharmacies (ASOP) and the Center for Safe Internet Pharmacies (CSIP). In simple terms the former is comprised mostly of the pharmaceutical industry, whereas the latter pulls in its partners such as Internet platforms (Facebook, Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!), payment processors (PayPal, Mastercard, and American Express), delivery providers (UPS), and domain name companies (GoDaddy and Rightside).

A third key player is LegitScript, which was instrumental in the formation of both ASOP and CSIP, and carries out most of the operational level arrangements that are agreed at a level of principle by those organizations. Internet users are not represented at board level in either ASOP, CSIP, or LegitScript.

A hallmark of Shadow Regulation is that government is also often quietly involved behind the scenes, and so it is here. The formation of the CSIP was announced at a White House-hosted industry event [PDF] on October 14, 2010, following months of talks between the administration and the CSIP’s founding industry members. Similarly, LegitScript is led by the former Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and subsists on lucrative contracts from government as well as from private industry.

With this framework in place, the “voluntary” adoption by Internet intermediaries of measures that primarily benefit the pharmaceutical industry suddenly becomes very easily explicable.

Internet Blacklists

Two registers of online pharmacy websites are approved by both the ASOP and the CSIP. These are run respectively by LegitScript, and by the National Association of Boards of Pharmacy (NABP) under the name Verified Internet Pharmacy Practice Sites (VIPPS). A third, independent register is run by the eponymous, which the ASOP and the CSIP do not recognize. This is because while all three exclude sellers of fake and counterfeit drugs from their approved lists, only the U.S. pharmaceutical industry-run registers LegitScript and VIPPS also exclude overseas online pharmacies that supply genuine drugs to Americans under the FDA’s personal use policy.

EFF has no quarrel with the use of these lists by users who wish to check that an online pharmacy complies with relevant safety standards and regulations, either according to the stringent pharma-industry approved lists or the more liberal PharmacyChecker list. What we do have a problem with is when the pharma industry lists are used as a secret content censorship mechanism, which prevents Americans from even finding pharmacies who can fill prescriptions in full compliance with FDA policy. This is what happens when such online pharmacies are blocked from access to essential Internet intermediaries such as domain registrars, payment processors and online advertising networks.

The latest extension of this Shadow Regulation regime is through the new top-level domain .pharmacy, which was granted by ICANN to the NABP last year notwithstanding a petition with almost 25,000 signatures from users opposed to the move. Websites registered in that domain space must comply with the same restrictive policies that qualify pharmacies for approval for the LegitScript or VIPPS registers.

This is perhaps not such a tragedy while there are other top-level domains in which pharmaceutical websites can be registered. But the NABP would like to see that changed too [PDF]. ICANN itself disclaims responsibility for policing the content of pharmaceutical websites, and rightly so. But the NABP is demanding ICANN force domain registries and registrars to require that any pharmaceutical website produce a license to dispense medicine to any jurisdiction that it ships to.

This would not only shut non-U.S. pharmacies out of the .pharmacy domain, but effectively wipe them off the Internet altogether.

Where are the voices of healthcare consumers and Internet users in all of this? Their voices are not being heard, because the mechanisms of Shadow Regulation that have been put in place by powerful government and private industry forces have deliberately shut them out. The unsurprising result is that the measures put in place by this closed and captured process are too broad, favoring the private interests of big pharma, limiting access to information and access to safe and affordable medicine.

We agree that fake and substandard medicine sales are a problem that regulatory and law enforcement agencies should address. But they should do so through proper legal channels, or at least through cooperative mechanisms that are inclusive, balanced, and accountable—which ASOP, CSIP, LegitScript, and .pharmacy are not. By Jeremy Malcolm, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Read and gnash your teeth. There’s already a backlash: individual lawsuits, state attorney general investigations, and government investigations. Read…  With Windows 10, Microsoft Blatantly Disregards User Choice and Privacy

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  23 comments for “How Big Pharma Censors the Internet

  1. walter map says:

    This is only one of hundreds of greedy corporate market-control-and-coercion projects going on, some of them for decades. Maybe a lot more.

    “guidelines . . . allow American consumers to import a 90-day supply of some prescription medications for personal use”

    And yet, I perceive an underserved market niche. Also a business adversary with deep pockets that can be dearly liable for monopolistic, predatory, and related actionable restraint-of-trade practices.

  2. Ptb says:

    Govt….making us safer by allowing monopolies. It’s a win-win for all parties except the customer. I’ve often wondered when the drug trade from Mexico would go after the real big market….prescription medications. But Medicare and Medicaid are where the big bucks get spent and they’re hooked directly into the circuit, making the scam complete. Do health care insurers own pharma corps?

    • d says:

      “Do health care insurers own pharma corps?”

      SAFE bet, they have stock and bonds in them.

      The US Financial/Financial trading, healthcare regulations, and systems.

      Produce so many licenses to print money with captive consumer markets.

      I simply can get my head around it all, its so insane, it can only be rooted in CORRUPTION.

      Our State pulled a similar stunt recently. Any citicen who wishes to trade, stocks, bonds, FX, ETC, online must do so, with an account and funds domicile in the state.

      The stated reason being to “protect” nationals from being defrauded by foreign service providers.

      In reality to force nationals, to deal with a crony corrupt financial services industry, short of customers and business, and to pay tax on every single cent possible of income, at source. That hand not previous been taxable, until it was brought into the state.

      Nation states and their crony’s, are stripping from us by the day. So many of the freedoms, and advatages, the internet brought us, and most of the time, they get away with it.

    • Intosh says:

      Corporate money corrupts governments; the population distrusts governments and therefore asks for less government. Corporations win.

      • Marty says:

        I think you have this inside out and backwards. Populations distrust corporations and demand bigger govt to protect them. corporations win.

        Corporations are a set of rules that grant certain people privileges. Without all these govt granted privileges, corporations would never get as large and powerful as they are now.

        Govt is always and everywhere THE problem.

        • Joel says:

          Ronnie knew one thing well. The more bizarre the generalization the less likely it will be examined and the more certainty it will inspire.

        • walter map says:

          “Govt is always and everywhere THE problem.”

          Blaming the victim. Govt corruption by corporations is always and everywhere THE problem. FIFY.

          “Corporations are a set of rules that grant certain people privileges.”

          Corporations are notorious for ignoring rules and taking liberties, to any extreme possible and by any malice imaginable.

          Familiar and routine.

        • JerryBear says:

          Uh oh, looks like the creek’s fixin’ to rise again!

          smell a Libertarian on the wind…….. ^,..,^

      • joel says:

        Thank you Intosh.

        You have divulged it all in only 16 words.

        • Joel says:

          Looky how sucessfully Donnie is taking Ronnie’s practices to new heights or is it depths? Oh well, we report, you decide.

      • chris Hauser says:

        spot on

        but, corporate money doesn’t corrupt governments, it is government.

        doesn’t mean corporations aren’t good people, too.

    • Ptb says:

      Over the years I have come to the conclusion that corruption is just human nature and therefore the only logical answer is that gov must be made smaller so that it loses power.

      • walter map says:

        “gov must be made smaller so that it loses power.”

        Naturally corporatists prefer a weak government that will not interfere with their plunder of the general population and can be easily corrupted, but bloated so it can provide the usual trillions in corporate welfare. The profitability of the MIC is certainly remarkable for one, but the FIRE sector controls most of that.

  3. Graham says:

    As a parallel story that needs to be spread, that of the:

    Holistic Doctor Death Series: Over 60 Dead In Just Over A Year.
    Google for details (ironically!).

    It’s almost as dangerous to expouse cheap, natural cures now as it is to be associated with the Clintons!

    We don’t know if this is big Pharma, but the motive is strong and only they have it. The main problem mankind has – apart from the shocking history of covering up deaths from the side effects of some of the drugs – is that Big Pharma is:

    1) Interested in only money
    2) Has a grip over what gets injected into people
    3) Has a disturbingly cosy relation with a (proven untrustworthy) government.

    The CDC is now pushing to make people who fail to have their vaccines criminals, it’s a worrying trend, particularly as the evidence behind the efficacy of vaccines, once you look into it, is patchy at best.

    It’s worth reading Dr. Duesberg and his documentation of AIDs, which has a disturbing epidemiological correlation to some vaccines.

  4. Aremes says:

    Government of the corporation, by the corporation and for the corporation……….
    Time for a revolution BY THE PEOPLE.

    • GreenRock says:

      Yawn, more of the same in these United States. Americans are way too asleep to change any of this by changing their personal habits, which would solve most of the problems, starting with fluoridation of water. A Mexican I talked with recently, who is now a citizen here, said the US is just like Mexico now.

      • JerryBear says:

        The only thing that can help ingrained stupidity is serious suffering. I fear that the people of this country will soon be receiving that lesson……

    • walter map says:

      “Time for a revolution BY THE PEOPLE.”

      TPTB have that covered. It would only provide the needed justification for establishing a more aggressive police state sooner, rather than later. So it’s not a solution.

      Humans have shown they can create societies that are prosperous, just, peaceful, equitable, and sustainable, but that’s not what TPTB want, and most people are conditioned to reject it also. Since the consensus it that civilization will not be prosperous, just, peaceful, equitable, or sustainable, it will ably, willingly, and inevitably commit suicide, every way it can.

      We think you’ll be impressed at just how fast a whole planet can turn so squalid.

  5. anonymous says:

    EFF is helpful in various ways. One tool that all internet users should have is their free Privacy Badger app. Download and install that to find out just how many companies are tracking your every move, and then start blocking them. Compare and contrast to Ghostery, too.

    While I acknowledge the need for advertising on the internet as part of the business model, I draw the line at invasive or manipulative or otherwise non-transparent tracking, cookies and such.

  6. humpty Dumpty says:

    The facts are pretty straightforward: the American consumer subsidizes the rest of the socialist world medications. When the local junta demands free aspirin, that raises the cost here. Now, all the good socialists here want to begin to address that by setting price controls in the US, and while graft and corruption will keep the prices buoyant for awhile, as this article points out in detail, what we will see as the outcome is a dramatic decline in medical research here. The explosion of small biotech companies now in play will implode just as quickly. Big whales buy up these start-up companies who take 100% of the risk in hopes of winning the lottery. When the lottery dries up, that risk taking will also. Most drugs in research fail, the costs are extraordinary and there is no magic bullet in the future.

    • walter map says:

      “The facts are pretty straightforward: the American consumer subsidizes the rest of the socialist world medications.”

      In fact, their profit margins simply aren’t as celestial elsewhere in the world as they are in the U.S. Other countries do allow price-gouging but not on the American scale. There’s no evidence Americans ‘subsidize’ medical products for ‘socialists’ in other countries because it’s absurd to suppose that’s what rentier capitalists do.

      “Now, all the good socialists here want to begin to address that by setting price controls in the US”

      Actually, the only socialists benefitting from U.S. policies are pharmaceutical corporate socialists who have bought off congress, corrupted regulators, and are immune to public outrage and to prosecution for massive tax evasions. Their extortion rackets are well-protected and their American victims will have to very profitably pay up or die for the foreseeable future.

  7. These bosses are playing with fire.

    When peeps start fighting back it will be uglier than anyone can imagine.

  8. chris Hauser says:

    hep c cure costs 85k. yep.


    and i own the stock.

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