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Social media firms and search engines to face new penalties for scam adverts

Image credit: Prateek Katyal on Unsplash

Social media sites and search engines will be legally required to prevent scam adverts from appearing on their platforms as part of a new rules to protect people online.

The latest draft of the Online Safety Bill will give regulators greater powers to tackle harmful, offensive and misleading adverts.

It could also see tougher penalties places on influencers who fail to declare payment for promoting products on their social media channels.

The latest changes to the bill follow calls from a coalition of 17 consumer and business groups last year for the government to include scams within the scope of the much-delayed bill.

In December, the Joint Committee responsible for reviewing the bill concluded that serious changes are needed to “call time on the Wild West online”. Peers and MPs said the draft bill, which was published last May, must be clearer about what content is illegal.

The latest additions are designed to 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 bad financial investments or break into bank accounts.

Communications regulator Ofcom will check if platforms have put in place systems to prevent and remove fake adverts. The watchdog could block services or issue a fine of up to £18m or 10 per cent of annual turnover, the government said.

Separately, a consultation is being launched on proposals to tighten the rules for the online advertising industry. This would bring more of the major players involved under regulation and create a more transparent, accountable and safer ad market.

Harmful or misleading adverts, such as those promoting negative body images, and adverts for illegal activities such as weapons sales, could be subject to tougher rules and sanctions. Influencers failing to declare they are being paid to promote products on social media could also be subject to stronger penalties.

Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries said: “We want to protect people from online scams and have heard the calls to strengthen our new internet safety laws. 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. 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.”

Anabel Hoult, chief executive of Which?, added: “It’s great news that the government has listened to the stories we have shared from scam victims and from the huge range of organisations that have been pushing for this change. This could make a huge difference to stemming the tide of fake and fraudulent ads on social media and search engines which cause devastating financial and emotional harm to innocent victims.

“The Online Safety Bill must now ensure that the regulator has the support and resources it needs to hold companies to account and take strong enforcement action where necessary, so that fraudsters are prevented from using adverts to lure unsuspecting victims.”

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