NEW YORK (CNNfn) - The Federal Trade Commission is looking into some popular online health information sites for allegedly sharing consumers' personal information with other companies, without the users' consent.|
Women's Internet network iVillage Inc. (IVIL: Research, Estimates), which allows its members to conduct personal health assessments online and runs chat forums on various diseases, confirmed that the New York-based company has been contacted by the FTC as part of a look into the practices of online health Web sites.
Emeryville, Calif.-based HealthCentral.com (HCEN: Research, Estimates) also has been contacted by the FTC, according to Al Green, the company's president.
"We have been in discussions with the FTC," Green told CNNfn. "They advised us that we are not part of a formal inquiry. We have had discussions with the FTC basically to educate them on issues of privacy and security, not only on behalf of HealthCentral.com, but on behalf of the entire industry."
In an interview on CNNfn's Digital Jam program Friday, FTC Commissioner Mozelle Thompson would not say whether the agency is investigating any alleged wrongdoing by specific online health companies. He did, however, say that it has its eye on the industry in general.
"We have a general inquiry about the effectiveness of health care sites and what they are saying," Thompson said. "It's part of our general views about how we look at what's happening on the Internet and the various claims that people are making."
An iVillage spokesman, who asked not to be identified, also said that the FTC review was not a formal investigation. The spokesman said that commission staff contacted iVillage by telephone recently, and asked the firm to participate in a meeting next month in Washington to discuss privacy and other issues surrounding the burgeoning "e-health" industry.
iVillage does not share consumers' personal data with third parties, but it does provide other companies with "aggregated" information such as how many users clicked on particular advertisements, the spokesman said. The company considers security and privacy of its members a key issue, and will work closely with the government and industry groups on the matter, the company representative said.
'Highly vulnerable' information
The commission's spotlight on the online health industry follows a report several weeks ago sponsored by the nonprofit California HealthCare Foundation that criticized medical Web sites -- one of the fastest-growing sectors on the Internet -- for breaching users' privacy.
According to the report, personal information provided by consumers on health Web sites is "highly vulnerable." Many health sites have provided personal information given by consumers with third parties despite assurances that no such data would be shared, the study said.
The study's authors said that third-party ad networks were receiving access to data that would allow them "to build detailed, personally identified profiles of individuals' health conditions and patterns of Internet use." The study looked at 21 of the most popular health information Web sites, including iVillage, HealthCentral, DrKoop.com (KOOP: Research, Estimates) and online pharmacy Drugstore.com (DCSM: Research, Estimates).
Federal and state regulators are paying increasing attention to the practices of Internet companies. On Thursday, the Michigan attorney general's office joined the FTC and New York officials in an inquiry of DoubleClick (DCLK: Research, Estimates), charging that the advertising company violates the state's consumer protection laws by implanting "cookies," or electronic surveillance files, on Internet users' computer hard drives, without users' consent or knowledge. DoubleClick has denied any wrongdoing.
The FTC also has launched a probe of Internet toy store eToys Inc. (ETYS: Research, Estimates) over the company's marketing practices.
In the online health sector, Web companies have been working to deal with ethical problems related to their young industry. On Friday, the Internet Healthcare Coalition, a group including online health companies, consumers, academics and others, released a draft code of ethics. Among other things, the draft code calls for online health companies to safeguard users' privacy and obtain users' consent when gathering personal data about them.
The issue of users' privacy is key to the integrity of the online health industry, said John Mack, the coalition's president.
"It is an important issue, and there are things that perhaps consumers don't know are going on with their personal information, and it may even be that some of the sites don't know what's happening with some of the information that's being passed on to third party business partners," he said.
The "e-health" industry already has been working with the federal government to fight online health fraud. Late last year, the Clinton administration proposed giving the Food and Drug Administration authority to regulate online sales of prescription drugs in an attempt to banish illegal pharmacy operations.