Harnessing tech in the online advertising ecosystem
There is political resolve to change the UK regulatory system in response to the challenges thrown up by fast-evolving technologies and growing complexity in the online world.
In part, that is borne from the perception that online is not regulated. Although that is true of a number of aspects of online activity (hence prospective legislation), that is not true of advertising.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which I chair, regulates almost all online advertising, including ads on platforms and the open internet, influencer ads, and companies’ own website and social media advertising claims. The exceptions are political advertising, aspects of which are regulated under electoral law, and particular issues in non-broadcast financial advertising which fall to the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA).
Our regulatory processes need to deploy technology and data science to achieve pace and scale
Our focus is on protecting people, especially the young and vulnerable, in a way that allows responsible ads by legitimate businesses to flourish. More than half our activity relates to online, and this proportion will undoubtedly grow. Our regulation is effective, but we recognise we need to do more.
Online advertising technology is constantly morphing, so our regulatory processes need to deploy technology and data science to achieve pace and scale. That is at the heart of the ASA’s More Impact Online strategy.
We are using monitoring tools to identify and take down ads for age-restricted products (such as gambling, alcohol, and foods high in fat, sugar and salt) that are placed, in contravention of our rules, on websites and channels which attract a high volume of children. We are using avatar monitoring technology, which mimics the online profiles of children and young people, to check these same ads are targeted away from children, as required by our rules.
We will shortly publish further work aimed at protecting children online. One project involves a landmark information request to the seven platforms most popular with children in the UK, including YouTube, Facebook and TikTok. Every platform responded – a good example of how we are encouraging, and working with, platforms to address and minimise potential harm to their users.
We are also playing our part in tackling scam ads. We launched a Scam Ad Alert system in partnership with online ad intermediaries, publishers and social media platforms, and are using machine learning to predict whether online ads we have identified are scam ads.
We want to build on the co-operation we already have from the platforms and other digital advertising service providers. We are exploring with them how we can bring greater transparency and consistency to the way they work to uphold the advertising rules. This would represent an important extension of the ASA regulatory system, a development of which government is aware.
There are, of course, a number of different regulators operating in the online space. We place great emphasis on effective collaboration to avoid regulatory gaps. We maintain effective and regular communication with Ofcom, the Competition and Markets Authority, Trading Standards, the Financial Conduct Authority, the Gambling Commission, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Authority, to deliver a form of collective regulation.
The ASA can rightfully claim to provide something unique in the field of advertising by legitimate businesses: a one-stop shop for advertising complaints and standards across all media and platforms. This is immensely valuable to both consumers and business, so we must ensure it is neither cut across nor undermined by impending legislation bringing new statutory powers to intervene online.
There will be new challenges to which we all – government, regulators and business – must respond, and there will need to be public debate of the issues, in which the voices and interests of the consumer and citizen should be to the fore.
The ASA will be an active participant in that debate, helping to frame the issues and provide solutions in the advertising market. Just as the ASA has transformed the way it works, so we will continue to deploy technology in innovative ways to better protect consumers and citizens in the complex and ever-changing online world.
Lord Currie of Marylebone is a crossbench peer and chair of the Advertising Standards Authority.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.