Searching for Safety: Addressing Search Engine, Website, and Provider Accountability for Illicit Online Drug Sales

60 Pages Posted: 20 Mar 2009 Last revised: 26 Oct 2012

See all articles by Bryan A. Liang

Bryan A. Liang

University of California San Diego School of Medicine

Tim Mackey

University of California, Berkeley

Date Written: March 20, 2009


Online sales of pharmaceuticals are a rapidly growing phenomenon. Yet despite the dangers of purchasing drugs over the Internet, sales continue to escalate. These dangers include patient harm from fake or tainted drugs, lack of clinical oversight, and financial loss. Patients, and in particular vulnerable groups such as seniors and minorities, purchase drugs online either naively or because they lack the ability to access medications from other sources due to price considerations. Unfortunately, high risk online drug sources dominate the Internet, and virtually no accountability exists to ensure safety of purchased products. Importantly, search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and MSN, although purportedly requiring verification of Internet drug sellers using requirements, actually allow and profit from illicit drug sales from unverified websites. These search engines are not held accountable for facilitating clearly illegal activities. Both website drug seller anonymity and unethical physicians approving or writing prescriptions without seeing the patient contribute to rampant illegal online drug sales. Efforts in this country and around the world to stem the tide of these sales have had extremely limited effectiveness. Unfortunately, current congressional proposals are fractionated and do not address the key issues of demand by vulnerable patient populations, search engine accountability, and the ease with which financial transactions can be consummated to promote illegal online sales. To deal with the social scourge of illicit online drug sales, this article proposes a comprehensive statutory solution that creates a no-cost/low-cost national Drug Access Program to break the chain of demand from vulnerable patient populations and illicit online sellers, makes all Internet drug sales illegal unless the Internet pharmacy is licensed through a national Internet pharmacy licensing program, prohibits financial transactions for illegal online drug sales, and establishes criminal penalties for all parties - including websites, search engines, and health care providers - who engage in and facilitate this harmful activity.

Keywords: search engines, Internet, online drug sales, counterfeit drugs, reform

JEL Classification: H51, I18, I28, K13, K29, K32, K42, L15, L86

Suggested Citation

Liang, Bryan A. and Mackey, Tim, Searching for Safety: Addressing Search Engine, Website, and Provider Accountability for Illicit Online Drug Sales (March 20, 2009). American Journal of Law and Medicine, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Bryan A. Liang (Contact Author)

University of California San Diego School of Medicine ( email )

San Diego Center for Patient Safety
350 Cedar Street
San Diego, CA 92101
United States
619-515-1568 (Phone)
619-515-1599 (Fax)

Tim Mackey

University of California, Berkeley ( email )

310 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

Do you have a job opening that you would like to promote on SSRN?

Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics