Microsoft, Pfizer sue Canadian Internet pharmacies

Microsoft Corp. and Pfizer Inc. have launched several lawsuits against Canadian online pharmacies and spammers in an effort to halt the distribution of illegal or unapproved drugs.

The two pharmacies named in the suits are CanadianPharmacy

and E-Pharmacy Direct. Microsoft and Pfizer said Thursday that they conducted a joint investigation which turned up an international operation designed to promote and sell illegal versions of the performance-enhancing drug Viagra. Microsoft is also suing three spammers that advertise a variety of online pharmacists and alleges that hundreds of millions of unsolicited e-mails were sent to MSN Hotmail users.

According to the Microsoft and Pfizer investigation, consumers can place orders for drugs advertised as Viagra which are received by computers in New York. The orders are processed by a Canadian call centre and then sent to India, where they are filled and shipped back to the U.S. for delivery. These drugs are not Viagra, which is a Pfizer trademark, but generic versions of the drug which may be dangerous or simply placebos.

Last year, Pfizer launched suits against 30 such online pharmacists. Twenty-nine of those are no longer operational, said Pfizer spokesperson Bryant Haskins, and their domain names have been turned over to Pfizer.

“We’re not under the illusion that filing suit against 10, 20, 30 or even 100 sites is going to bring a halt to the practice of criminally selling illegal products on Web sites,” said Haskins. “(But) we are having some impact. We are sending a message to people who are operating these Web sites that there may be a consequence to pay for their actions.”

Microsoft did not return calls for comment at press time, but Haskins said that Pfizer is a Microsoft customer and required the company’s expertise in tracking down spammers.

“There’s probably more spam generated from (Viagra) than any other product on the market. It just made sense to team up with Microsoft to address both sides of the issue,” he said.

Microsoft’s lawsuits allege that the Viagra spam is in violation of the U.S. Can-Spam Act, a piece of federal legislation that went into effect on Jan. 1, 2004. So far, Can-Spam has seen little compliance and independent studies such as those conducted by anti-spam company MX Logic suggest that unsolicited e-mail only continues to increase.

Can-Spam is a toothless law, said Neil Schwartzman, chairman of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial E-mail (CAUCE), based in Montreal. The legislation was pushed through in a matter of weeks, he said, and has so far proven ineffective.

He praised Canada for its more contemplative approach to anti-spam but said it’s time for the nation to actually draft some coherent legislation.

“We’ve seen that the law enforcement people in this country are unwilling or unable to do anything. We’ve seen that our ISPs have conflicts of interest. Many of them are supporting or hosting spammers. The fact that Microsoft is finally drawing a line in the sand is absolutely laudable,” said Schwartzman.

Other private sector attempts to curb spam include the Anti-Spam Task Force, an industry group led by ActiveState Inc. A separate effort last year by the Canadian Association of Internet Providers (CAIP) and AOL Canada Inc. encouraged ISPs to do more to block spam from reaching their subscribers.

One of the first attempts to shut down an online pharmacy came from the Ontario College of Pharmacists (OCP) in 2002. The Canadian Drug Store Inc. operated a Web site that could not be accessed from Canada but was available to American Internet users. Charges were laid against the outfit based on its failure to comply with several provincial health regulations.

OCP spokesperson Layne Verbeek said that regulations differ from province to province and country to country, but in Ontario an online pharmacy must also operate an established brick and mortar location. OCP operates a Web site called to help answer consumer questions.

Schwartzman said that spammers promoting illegal drugs continue to proliferate across the country and he knows of several in Quebec that are “seemingly very mom and pop . . . I’m all for free enterprise, but we really need to deal with this.”

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