Internet Spying by Drug Companies Said to be "for the good of the patient"
On May 30, 2005 the Financial Times (London, UK) newspaper reported that drug manufacturers GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson are considering the use of proprietary computer software to monitor web logs, commonly known as blogs, news groups, and patient online forums for mention of the companies' pharmaceutical products in internet postings.
To implement their internet monitoring -- or, some might say, internet spying -- operation, these drug companies have conferred with Netrank, a UK company. Netrank's "i-reputation" service apparently uses "software robots" to constantly monitor the content of new postings made to blogs, news groups, and other types of web sites. John Straw, head of Netrank, claims that the drug companies' motives for monitoring efforts are essentially good:
You could say we are spying, but actually this information is in the public domain. We are doing it for the good of the patient, allowing companies to react more quickly to concerns.
Use of Netrank's "i-reputation" service would enable GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson to seek out and identify thousands of internet postings per day that make certain types of references to their prescription drugs.
There are several reasons that these drug companies might want to engage in such an internet monitoring, or internet spying, operation. As suggested by Netrank's Mr. Straw, one reason could be to warn drug companies of emerging potential side effects associated with one of their prescription drugs. Another motivation is that the "i-reputation" service would allow the drug companies to learn about internet postings which might positively or negatively affect one of their pharmaceutical products or, more generally, their corporate reputation.
Potentially, by use of the "i-reputation" service, these drug companies could ultimately choose to contact directly some or all patients who made an internet posting. The Financial Times article pointed out that this latter practice would likely be prohibited in European countries, because there is a ban on direct advertising of prescription drugs to patients, there. The odds for some type of marketing use for this internet-posting "intelligence" seem better in the U.S., given that some forms of direct-to-consumer (DTC) advertising are permitted by the FDA, here.
This news of drug companies monitoring blogs and other internet postings met with a mixed review from Katherine Murphy, who commented on behalf of the Patients' Association, a patients' rights group in the UK:
If this information is used constructively it could be a good thing. But I would be slightly concerned about how the drug companies would use the information. I don't think it would be right for them to have direct access to patients.
No doubt, the possible use of Netrank's "i-reputation" internet monitoring service by drug companies like GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Johnson & Johnson will be the source of considerable controversy as more consumers and patients become aware of this rather unsettling news.