UK to tighten rules on illegal content on online platforms

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UK ministers have pledged to crack down on illegal advertising by forcing social media and online platforms such as Google Ads to take tougher action to prevent children from seeing ads for products and services such as alcohol or gambling.

The government said on Tuesday it will set rules to make the online advertising industry “fit for the digital age,” including stopping fake scams by celebrities and social media influencers, who earn money or receive gifts for posting material on the platforms.

The government said the new legal regulations would give major internet and “adtech” groups such as Google, which act as intermediaries for online advertising, more responsibility for policing such content along with online publishers, apps and websites serving ads.

The rules will also cover paid promotional posts by influencers.

Social media companies, search engines and other sites would be required by law to launch systems to prevent people from receiving illegal advertisements and to prevent people under the age of 18 from seeing advertisements for products and services that require the user to be an adult.

The government said online advertising, including display or display ads and pop-ups, accounted for three-quarters of the £34.8 billion spent on advertising in the UK last year.

But she warned that rapid growth has led to an increase in malicious marketing, citing fraudulent endorsements by celebrities for financial scams and promotion of products such as guns, drugs and counterfeit goods.

The Minister for Creative Industries, Sir John Whittingdale, said: “Because online advertising is taking a steadily larger share [of the overall advertising industry]has not kept pace with the rules that govern it, and so we intend to strengthen it to ensure that consumers are properly protected.”

In response to regulations that came into effect in the UK in 2021, YouTube owner Google introduced measures to block ads featuring alcohol, gambling or prescription drugs seen by people who are not logged into a Google account or cannot verify that they are over 18 years of age.

Google said its policies do not allow personalization and targeting of ads based on the age, gender or interests of Google Account users under the age of 18. It added that it had several policies in place to prevent age-sensitive ads from reaching younger users.

In addition to setting up a new task force to work with the industry, ministers are considering creating a regulatory body to oversee online advertising rules. The monitoring body can be either a new or an existing body, such as Ofcom.

The proposals, which will be put forward for consultation, will not affect the jurisdiction of the Advertising Standards Authority in relation to legitimate paid online advertising.

The government has already introduced measures to prevent fraudulent ads being placed on social media and search engines through the Online Safety Act, but the new rules will go further.

Last week, the Financial Conduct Authority, the main financial regulator, said it would aim to reduce “significant consumer harm” from inappropriate and illegal promotions by applying a new consumer duty to social media posts.

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