Cancer diets and tech giants: having cake and eating it

I recently worked with Jack Malvern at The Times on a news story on ketogenic diet apps that claim to help treat cancer (subscription required).

A ketogenic diet, which is very low in carbohydrates, can be used under medical supervision to treat children with epilepsy. But Cancer Research UK says there is no evidence it is effective in reducing the risk of people getting cancer or increasing survival rates.

Such apps may be built by small companies and individuals, but are sold by Apple and Google. They effectively publish the material, but tech giants prefer to present themselves as neutral platforms with minimal responsibility for what they host, except when it suits them in court cases.

Belle Gibson, an Australian woman who blogged about curing herself of a cancer she didn’t have with ‘wellness’ and diet, was exposed by Beau Donelly and Nick Toscano, two journalists at The Age in Melbourne. (She was later fined A$410,000 under consumer law, which she hasn’t yet paid.) Penguin, which had published her book, admitted it hadn’t checked whether she had cancer. The company didn’t look good, but it conceded it had screwed up.

Apple had worked closely with Gibson on her app and on its watch, as company emails obtained by Donelly and Toscano revealed. But as they write in their book The Woman Who Fooled the World: “Apple cut her loose without uttering a word — and has never released a statement about its partnership with Gibson.” (This section was republished by The Sunday Times.)

On publishing material, tech giants are trying to have their cake and eat it. Apple and Google should take responsibility for the apps they host and make money from.

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