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The UK government has once again extended the scope of its upcoming Online Safety Bill (OSB), placing a new legal duty on the largest social media firms to prevent fraudulent paid-for adverts from appearing on their services.
Under the new duty, internet companies will be required to put in place proportionate systems and processes to prevent and minimise the impact of fraudulent adverts.
As the online harms regulator, Ofcom will be responsible for setting out exactly what actions companies need to take in its upcoming code of practice, but the government has indicated this could include making firms scan for scam adverts before they are uploaded to their systems, or otherwise running identity checks on people wanting to run adverts.
Although the regulator will be responsible for overseeing whether companies have put adequate measures in place, it will not assess individual pieces of content.
As it currently stands, the draft OSB would impose a statutory “duty of care” on tech companies that host user-generated content or allow people to communicate, which means they would be legally obliged to proactively identify, remove and limit the spread of both illegal and legal but harmful content, such as child sexual abuse, terrorism and suicide material.
“We want to protect people from online scams and have heard the calls to strengthen our new internet safety laws,” said culture secretary Nadine Dorries. “These changes to the upcoming Online Safety Bill will help stop fraudsters conning people out of their hard-earned cash using fake online adverts.
“As technology revolutionises more and more of our lives, the law must keep up. Today, we are also announcing a review of the wider rules around online advertising to make sure industry practices are accountable, transparent and ethical – so people can trust what they see advertised and know fact from fiction.”
The government has already extended the scope of the Online Safety Bill three times this year, adding three new criminal offences and a number of new “priority offences” as well as measures to deal with anonymous abuse and obliging porn sites to verify that their users are aged 18 or over.
The latest change around fraudulent advertising follows pressure from campaigners. On 24 February, for example, consumer watchdog Which? reiterated its call for the government to tackle fraudulent paid-for advertising in the OSB after conducting a survey that found an estimated nine million people had been targeted by a scam on social media, and that only one in five consumers feel protected online.
Which? previously urged the government to include protection from online cyber scams in the OSB in May 2021, when it wrote a joint letter alongside a coalition of other organisations representing consumers, civil society and business.
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In an earlier report published in December 2021 by the joint parliamentary committee for the Online Safety Bill – which was set up to scrutinise the bill and propose improvements before it goes to Parliament for final approval – MPs and Lords said the exclusion of paid-for advertising in the draft bill “would obstruct the government’s stated aim of tackling online fraud and activity that creates a risk of harm more generally”.
Responding to the inclusion of paid-for advertising in the bill, Which? chief executive Anabel Hoult said it was “great news” that the government had listened to the “huge range of organisations” calling for this change. “This could make a huge difference to stemming the tide of fake and fraudulent ads on social media and search engines which cause devastating financial and emotional harm to innocent victims,” she said.
“The Online Safety Bill must now ensure that the regulator has the support and resources it needs to hold companies to account and take strong enforcement action where necessary, so that fraudsters are prevented from using adverts to lure unsuspecting victims.”
Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com and the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute, whose face is among the most used by scammers in the UK, added that although the changes are a step in the right direction, it is a complex area.
“Now we and others need to analyse all elements of this new part of the bill, and work with government and parliament to close down the hiding places or gaps that scammers can exploit,” he said.
Alongside the new OSB measures, the government has also launched a consultation on its Online Advertising Programme, which will look at whether the current system of self-regulation needs strengthening or a new statutory regulator is needed.
The government hopes that tightening the rules for online advertising will help create a more transparent, accountable and safer ad market generally.