The Government continues to add further requirements to its proposed Online Safety Bill, with the latest targetting scam adverts online.

The government said that under its changes, social media platforms and search engines will be forced to stamp out fraudsters and scammers on their platforms.

The government said it is also launching “a consultation as part of a wider overhaul of how online advertising is regulated in the UK, including proposals to improve transparency and accountability and tackle harmful, fraudulent and misleading adverts.”

Online scams

Together the measures aim to boost people’s trust and confidence in being online by making sure the UK’s rules and regulations keep pace with rapid advances in technology, the government stated.

And what will be concerning for the likes of Facebook, Twitter and Google, is that a new legal duty in the Bill will require them to prevent paid-for fraudulent adverts appearing on their services.

Under a previous draft of the online safety bill, those platforms would have had a “duty of care” to protect users from fraud by other users.

The government says the change will improve protections for internet users from the potentially devastating impact of fake ads, including where criminals impersonate celebrities or companies to steal people’s personal data, peddle dodgy financial investments or break into bank accounts.

Separately, the government is launching a consultation on proposals to tighten the rules for the online advertising industry.

“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,” said Dorries. “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.”

Under the current draft of the Online Safety Bill, search engines and platforms which host user-generated content, video-sharing or live streaming will have a duty of care to protect users of their services from fraud committed by other users.

This includes ‘catfishing’ romance scams and fake stock market tips – posted by people in images, comments or videos.

Today the government is also adding a new duty to the bill which will bring fraudulent paid-for adverts on social media and search engines into scope, whether they are controlled by the platform itself or an advertising intermediary.

It will mean companies have to clamp down on ads with unlicensed financial promotions, fraudsters impersonating legitimate businesses and ads for fake companies. It includes ‘boosted’ social media posts by users which they pay to have promoted more widely.

Welcomed move?

The founder of MoneySavingExpert and well known money saving expert Martin Lewis dropped its High Court lawsuit against Facebook in early 2019.

Lewis had sued Facebook in April 2018 and he said he took the decision “to try and stop all the disgusting repeated fake adverts from scammers it (Facebook) refuses to stop publishing with my picture, name and reputation.”

Lewis said he had been fighting with Facebook for over a year before he began the lawsuit to get them to stop publishing adverts for scams, that utilise his name and picture. One lady reportedly lost £100,000 to the scam adverts.

The money saving expert had claimed the fake endorsements had caused him reputational damage.

“I am thankful the government has listened to me and the huge numbers of other campaigners – across banks, insurers, consumer groups, charities, police and regulators – who’ve been desperate to ensure scam adverts are covered by the online safety bill,” Lewis was quoted by the Guardian newspaper as saying.

“We are amidst an epidemic of scam adverts. Scams don’t just destroy people’s finances – they hit their self-esteem, mental health and even leave some considering taking their own lives,” said Lewis.

“The government now accepting the principle that scam adverts need to be included, and that firms who are paid to publish adverts need to be responsible for them, is a crucial first step,” he reportedly said. “Until now, only user-generated scams were covered – which risked pushing more scam ads, incentivising criminals to shift strategy.”

The online safety bill is currently facing pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of MPs and peers.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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