Search engines want you to find websites. When you find what you’re looking for, they win. So if you click on an interesting result, they’re not usually going to throw out a warning and tell you to back up. Unless, of course, you’re searching for drugs.
Starting last week, Bing began alerting users if they click on a pharmacy site that may be a fake. “Fake” in this case is used pretty broadly. The idea is that if a site has sold dangerous, mislabeled or unapproved drugs, searchers ought to be made aware of it before they start shopping. Bing itself doesn’t decide which sites are fakes—they draw from the FDA’s list of web sites that have received citations.
The catch? That list isn’t all fakers.
Exactly What They’re Looking For
Bing has positioned the new warnings as a safety consideration. And it’s a good idea—fake prescriptions drugs, or drugs that have never been safety tested, can and do cost people their lives. But there are a lot of ways to land on the FDA’s citation list:
“Violations may include, but are not limited to, the following: offering for sale unapproved prescription drugs of unknown origin, safety, and effectiveness; offering prescription drugs without a prescription; offering prescription drugs without adequate directions for safe use; and offering prescription drugs without FDA-required warnings to consumers about the serious health risks associated with the prescription drug.”
The part in bold is the real problem here. Who visits all these fake pharmacies? Often it’s someone that wants a prescription drug illegally. They already know they’re breaking the law to get it, and the pharmacy is too. They don’t care.
The customers most likely to see the warning are also least likely to take it seriously. They may even read it as, “this website has exactly what you’re looking for.”
A Gentle Hand
Of course, it’s not Bing’s fault that people sometimes buy illegal drugs. The warning is still a step in the right direction. But if they have a list of sites with violations, why not just drop them from the search results completely?
There are a few reasons. For one, even if the sites face citations, they clearly haven’t been shut down by the government; some may be legitimate businesses. For another, nixing the (well known, publicly cited) websites may just drive the same fraudsters to new ones (with no warning information).
But the biggest reason is probably that Bing wants to use a gentle hand. Search engines repeatedly assert that they are not responsible for the content users find; they’re just an index. Anything that smacks of censorship or regulation threatens that position, and that’s bad for business. Bing probably wouldn’t even do the warnings if it wasn’t a medical safety issue. (Google also treats medical information differently.)
The warnings won’t shut down the online illegal drug industry. But hopefully they will give some consumers pause—mostly the ones who were just looking for legitimate medicine at a better price.