Use Online Safety Bill to protect against scams, groups urge
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A coalition of 17 consumer and business groups and authorities has called on the government to include scams within the scope of its much-delayed Online Safety Bill.
The White Paper laying out proposals for the Online Safety Bill was originally published more than two years ago; the legislation aims to create a regulatory framework for the internet which makes it a safer place to use, particularly for children. Reflecting European data protection regulations, the legislation is expected to include serious financial penalties for companies which fail their duty of care to users.
The Online Safety Bill, which has been long delayed for various reasons, could be announced in the Queen’s Speech next week.
Now, a coalition of 17 groups has urged the government to ensure that the legislation also provides protection against an “avalanche” of online scams. The groups – which include Which?, the City of London Police and the Association of British Insurers – have presented their advice in an open letter to Home Secretary Priti Patel and Digital Secretary Oliver Dowden.
“Online platforms play a pivotal role in enabling criminals to reach and defraud internet users through the hosting, promotion and targeting of fake and fraudulent content on their sites, including adverts that they make significant profits from,” the letter said. “Yet platforms have very little legal responsibility for protecting their users, despite often being the best placed to tackle harmful content.”
According to Action Fraud, scams have escalated during the coronavirus pandemic, with £1.7bn estimated to have been lost to them over the past 12 months. However, the coalition said that actual financial losses are likely to be much higher and do not account for the full impact on victims.
“Across industry, regulators and consumer groups, there is now wide-ranging consensus on the urgent need for action to tackle scams and the critical role that online platforms must take in protecting users from the harm caused by fake and fraudulent content,” the letter continued.
“While we recognise there are initiatives being progressed by the government designed to tackle aspects of online fraud, there is a growing risk that current plans for future regulatory frameworks are not taking a comprehensive approach to the threats faced by consumers and do not reflect the extent or urgency of the problem.”
Martin Lewis, founder of MoneySavingExpert.com, said: “It beggars belief that the government’s Online Safety Bill could ignore the epidemic of scams that the UK faces – but that’s the plan. The policing of scams is critically underfunded, leaving criminals to get away with these frauds with impunity. The government has a chance to at least deny them the 'oxygen of publicity' by making big tech responsible for the scammer's advert it is paid to publish.
“I plead on bended knee for the government to take that opportunity, by putting scams in the Online Safety Bill. Failing to do so will betray its promise to create world-leading online protection and will leave vulnerable people defenceless against online crime in the midst of a global pandemic.”
A government spokesperson responded: “The government is working closely with industry, regulators, law enforcement and consumer groups to tackle online fraud. This includes our Online Advertising Programme, which will consider further regulation relating to online advertising to reduce online harms; recruiting more police with specialist skills as part of our commitment to recruit 20,000 new officers, and providing scam reporting and takedown services to remove malicious and fraudulent websites.”
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