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Government pledges to ‘shut down scammers’ online in response to Online Advertising Programme

Social media platforms, websites and services like advertising display networks will have to take tougher action to stop children seeing age-restricted adverts for products like alcohol or gambling under new government plans published today in response to its Online Advertising Programme.

Fake celebrity scams and pop-up malware from hackers will also be clamped down on as part of new rules to “make advertising regulation fit for the digital age.”

Online advertising includes the banners or displays which appear around the content of a website, results prioritised at the top of search engines, and pop-ups on a user’s screen. Last year online advertising accounted for three quarters (£26.1 billion) of the £34.8 billion spent on advertising in the UK.

However, the rapid development of the medium, combined with changes in technology and complex supply chains between marketers and platforms, can make it difficult to stop illegal ads appearing, according to the government.

People frequently encounter fraudulent celebrity endorsements for financial scams, legitimate-looking pop-ups containing hidden malware, and promotions for products prohibited under UK law – such as weapons, drugs, counterfeit fashion and fake ticketing.

Children can also be exposed to ads for age-restricted products such as alcohol, gambling and adult-rated films and games.

Creative Industries Minister Sir John Whittingdale said: “Advertising is a huge industry in which Britain is a world leader. However, as online advertising has taken a steadily bigger share, the rules governing it have not kept pace and so we intend to strengthen them to ensure consumers are properly protected.

“Our plans will shut down the scammers using online adverts to con people out of their cash and will stop damaging and inappropriate products being targeted at children.

“We will make sure that our proposed regulation helps keep people safe while supporting and enhancing the legitimate advertising industry so it can maximise its innovation and potential.”

There is currently a self-regulatory system for the content and placement of online adverts in the UK, overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The government intends to introduce new rules to tackle illegal paid-for online adverts and increase protections for children. A range of targeted legislative and non-legislative measures will address the most serious risks linked to online advertising. This approach complements the Online Safety Bill, which is targeted at user generated content, and will build on measures tackling fraudulent advertising in that legislation.

The new statutory regulation will put more responsibilities on major players across the online advertising supply chain. As well as online publishers, apps and websites serving ads, ‘adtech’ intermediary services which facilitate the placement and distribution of online adverts will be in scope. Promotional posts by social media influencers where they receive payment or free products will also be covered.

Social media firms, search engines and other websites will be required by law to have proportionate systems and processes to stop people being served illegal adverts, and prevent under-18s seeing adverts for products and services illegal to be sold to them. This will improve safety, transparency and consumer trust by introducing more effective action while supporting industry growth.

In due course, the government will launch a further consultation on the details of potential legislation – including its preferred choice for a regulator to oversee the new illegal paid-for advertising rules. New legislation would not affect the ASA’s remit for the content and placement of legitimate paid-for advertising online.

Ministers will this week convene a new taskforce to gather more evidence around illegal advertising and build on industry initiatives to tackle harms and increase protections for children before the legislation is introduced.

The taskforce will be chaired by Creative Industries Minister John Whittingdale and Mark Lund, the chair of the Advertising Standards Board of Finance and former president of McCann UK and Europe. The group will also include representatives from across the advertising industry, including the ASA, as well as tech trade bodies, consumer groups and the government’s Anti-Fraud Champion, Anthony Browne.

Lund said: “I’m delighted to be helping lead in the task force’s role in strengthening industry’s response to illegal harms advertising and the protection of children online,  building on the long-term success of the ASA and the self-regulation system in keeping both trust and creativity at world leading levels.”

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